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Trump Trial Court Pick Grilled on Abortion, Qualifications

Sept. 25, 2019, 5:38 PM

Republicans got a step closer to flipping a New York-based appeals court to majority Republican-appointees and to chipping away at the Democratic-appointed hold on the West Coast appeals court that’s been a foil to Republican legal maneuvers.

But it was one of President Donald Trump’s trial court picks that got all of the Senate Judiciary Committee scrutiny Sept. 25, stemming from the American Bar Association deeming her unqualified for the bench, as well as her work on abortion issues—"pro-life” or “anti-choice,” depending which senator was talking.

Trump’s nominees for the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Second and Ninth Circuits, William Nardini and Danielle Hunsaker, sailed smoothly through their nomination hearing.

The same can’t be said—relatively—for Sarah Pitlyk, nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, though, with Republicans in control of the Senate, there’s little reason to think any of Trump’s judicial nominees are in jeopardy.

The ABA standing committee on the federal judiciary rated Pitlyk, who clerked for Brett Kavanaugh while he was a judge on Washington’s federal appeals court, as “not qualified.” She doesn’t have “the requisite trial or litigation experience or its equivalent,” the committee said.

During the hearing, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) got Pitlyk to concede that she has never taken a deposition or cross-examined a witness. That troubled Durbin, because she’s seeking a lifetime spot as a trial judge.

Democrats likewise went after Pitlyk’s work advancing Republican legal positions on abortion. She works for the Thomas More Society, the “national public interest law firm dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family, and religious liberty.”

Pitlyk and her Republican defenders on the committee said her personal views wouldn’t affect her judicial performance. They also tried to cast doubt on the ABA rating, saying her career has been non-traditional.

ABA ratings have divided senators along partisan lines, with Republicans alleging they are biased against them.

The California-based Ninth Circuit, where Hunsaker would sit, has blocked some of Trump’s policies, like his travel ban, before the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled for the administration, and, more recently, his asylum ban, which the justices also have let take effect for now. Hunsaker is an Oregon state court judge currently.

The New York-based Second Circuit, where Nardini would sit, is centered in the nation’s financial capital. That court could settle disputes related to the president himself, ranging from his business dealings to criminal liability, and it has already ruled on Trump’s ability to block his critics on Twitter.

Both appeals court nominees told Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) that they think the Supreme Court’s landmark school desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education, was correctly decided. It’s a question that has tripped up some Trump judicial nominees.

Confirmation of Nardini, along with another pending Second Circuit nominee, Steven Menashi, whose hearing was contentious, would give Republican-appointees the edge in that circuit.

Nardini is a longtime federal prosecutor in Connecticut, another state that falls under the Second Circuit’s jurisdiction. He clerked for retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and for Second Circuit judges.

Also in front of the committee without fanfare were two more trial court picks: Jodi W. Dishman, for the Western District of Oklahoma, and Daniel Mack Traynor, for the District of North Dakota.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com; Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com

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