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Senate Democrats look to turn tables on GOP regarding judicial nominees

The new push comes as the fight over control of the Senate heats up

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., arrive in the Capitol on May 12, 2020. Stabenow and Schumer published a new report Wednesday to highlight the role of "dark money" groups in judicial appointments.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., arrive in the Capitol on May 12, 2020. Stabenow and Schumer published a new report Wednesday to highlight the role of "dark money" groups in judicial appointments. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Democrats launched a campaign Wednesday blasting the GOP majority’s confirmation of conservatives to the federal courts as a plan to benefit Republicans and their donors.

The Democrats released a 54-page report spotlighting “dark-money” groups they say are part of a scheme for installing like-minded judges to benefit the GOP and its benefactors. Getting over 200 judges on federal benches has been a point of pride for President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The report likely previews Democrats’ plans to combat Republican election cycle talking points that focus on the courts.

[Senate Democrats sore on ‘right-wing judges,’ but they’re OK with the nominees headed to floor soon]

“This is not just simply Republican presidents choosing conservative judges; there is a whole orchestrated machine to make that happen and capture the courts for a small special narrow interest group,” said Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.

Schumer spoke on a Wednesday call with Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

The new report spotlights conservative-leaning groups like the Federalist Society and its co-chairman Leonard Leo. It draws parallels between Leo’s group and groups not required to disclose donors running campaigns and publicity for nominees like now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

“Over the coming months, Democrats in the Senate will shed light on the corruption and conflicts of interest now spreading around the Trump judiciary,” the report said. The report said it plans to show the “real-world” impact of courts’ decisions on issues like health care and reproductive rights, and promises legislative fixes.

McConnell has led the charge toward record-setting judicial confirmations to federal appeals courts, which have the final say in all but the several dozen cases the Supreme Court hears each year. The majority leader hasn’t shown signs of letting up, and much of the Senate’s time since returning from the extended coronavirus recess has been spent confirming nominees.

During Trump’s 2016 bid for the White House, he put out a list of people he’d be willing to appoint to the courts. All three lawmakers on the call Wednesday said that wouldn’t be necessary for former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

Stabenow expressed confidence Biden would put forth competent nominees who have firm beliefs in the Constitution and an independent judiciary, she said. “And basically begin to unwind, what we are seeing that the Republicans have been doing.”

Trump’s judicial picks are typically younger, sometimes inexperienced and often arrive with a background of outspoken ideological views. But the 47 votes the Democratic caucus can muster isn’t enough to stop the confirmation machine, without four GOP colleagues willing to break ranks.

But more GOP senators are defending seats than Democrats, and Schumer said he expects public pressure to be one of the main reasons confirmations may slow or stop as the election gets closer. That’s especially true if McConnell’s statements justifying why he was blocking nominees, including Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland at the end of President Barack Obama’s term — resurface.

Schumer expects judicial confirmations to become an election issue, not because Democrats are “pushing it,” he said. But because people “who see their rights being taken away by the courts, particularly on health care, are able to see what the courts are doing.”

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