A Donald Trump district court selection rated unqualified by the American Bar Association was confirmed Oct. 24, while Senate committee action on two other controversial judicial nominees was deferred again.
The chamber voted 50 to 41 along party lines to confirm law professor and former Gibson Dunn & Crutcher associate Justin Walker to a district court seat in Kentucky.
Democrats complain that Walker, 37, was in law school just just over a decade ago and lacks the requisite legal experience for a lifetime trial court appointment.
Republicans say the former clerk to then-appeals court judge Brett Kavanaugh and retired Justice Anthony Kennedy has a sharp legal mind and is more than suited for the job in the Western District of Kentucky, which includes Louisville.
Walker also is a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative group instrumental in Trump judicial selections.
Democrats have raised concerns with a handful of other Trump nominees lacking the ABA’s blessing, but it has not derailed his push, along with the Republican-led Senate, to appoint more than 150 judges to the federal bench, including Kavanaugh and Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
The ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, which rates judicial nominees, noted in a July letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Walker lacked “significant trial experience” and didn’t meet the minimum professional standard required of district judges.
ABA ratings are controversial in the Senate, which vets judicial selections. Democrats have flagged negative assessments for some Trump judges, but a number of Republicans have criticized negative ratings as partisan and incomplete.
Walker said during his confirmation hearing that his experience as a University of Louisville law professor and his private practice work is qualifying. “My experience exploring criminal procedure, evidence, civil procedure, and constitutional law has prepared me to analyze the kind of complex legal questions that judges deal with, especially the majority of what they do, which is motion work,” Walker said in July.
Earlier in the day, two Trump appellate nominees who received top ratings from the ABA easily cleared the Judiciary Committee while action on controversial picks was again deferred.
The panel sent the nominations of Danielle Hunsaker and William Joseph Nardini for the California-based Ninth and New York-based Second Circuit courts of appeals, respectively, to the full Senate for consideration.
Both breezed through their confirmation hearings, and received bipartisan backing in their committee votes.
The committee also voted to advance Anuraag Singhal and Karen Marston, who are nominated to federal district courts in Florida and Pennsylvania, respectively.
But the committee tabled action for the third-straight session on two other circuit court nominees, White House lawyer Steven Menashi and U.S. District Judge Halil Suleyman Ozerden.
The nominations are controversial, and there are questions about Republican support for both. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told liberal judicial advocacy group Demand Justice that she would vote no on Menashi’s nomination if brought to the floor.
Democrats oppose the former Kirkland & Ellis partner who clerked for Justice Samuel Alito over past writings on race, abortion, sexual assault, and other issues. He told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing that he abhorred discrimination.
He also faced pushback from Democrats and Republicans over his refusal at his confirmation hearing to detail advice he gave as a current White House lawyer related to immigration policies like family separation.
Ozerden lacks support of at least two senators, Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, over concerns he’s not conservative enough to serve on the Fifth Circuit, which is considered one of the nation’s most conservative appellate courts.
If confirmed, Nardini and Menashi, would “flip” the New York-based Second Circuit to a majority of judges appointed by Republican presidents.
Nardini, who is currently a federal prosecutor in Connecticut, clerked for retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and two Second Circuit judges.
Hunsaker would add to Trump’s seven appointees already sitting on the California-based Ninth Circuit if confirmed. She’s currently an Oregon state judge and clerked for Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain on the Ninth Circuit.
Sarah Pitlyk, another controversial nominee who clerked for Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit and received an unqualified ABA rating, also was held over again by the Republican-led Judiciary panel on her selection for a district court seat in Missouri.
Democrats have gone 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.