Bloomberg Law
June 5, 2019, 4:58 PM

Senators Spar on Religion Questions at Trump Judge Pick Hearing

Patrick L. Gregory
Patrick L. Gregory

Senators disagreed over whether it’s appropriate to ask nominees about religious affiliations, at a hearing for federal appeals court nominee Peter Phipps Wednesday.

President Donald Trump nominated Phipps to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Phipps has been a district judge at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania since October.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) noted that Phipps is a member of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, while criticizing Democrats for asking other nominees about their membership in the group and implying it “might be disqualifying for the bench.”

Senators Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) asked District of Nebraska nominee Brian Buescher last year about his membership in the group, prompting similar criticism from Sasse.

Hirono responded to Sasse Thursday. No Democratic senator has suggested that membership in an organization makes a nominee unfit for the bench, only those who can’t be fair or impartial, she said.

The Senate unanimously confirmed Phipps, 46 years old, to his current position. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) supported Phipps’s district court nomination, describing him as “an able attorney who has spent the bulk of his career in public service.”

But Casey opposes Phipps’s appeals court nomination, seeing Phipps’ short time as a district court judge as insufficient preparation for the position. He has declined to return a “blue slip” indicating his approval.

Phipps is nonetheless likely to be confirmed by the Republican-led Senate. Republicans aren’t requiring blue slips for nominees to be confirmed, in a departure from Senate practice during the Obama administration.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) testified in support of Phipps, praising him as a “faithful adherent to the rule of law.”

After graduating from Stanford Law School, Phipps worked as an associate at Jones Day, and then as a federal prosecutor for 15 years in the Department of Justice’s Civil Division. He also clerked for Sixth Circuit Chief Judge R. Guy Cole Jr.

Phipps would be Trump’s fourth appointee to the Third Circuit, which has now flipped to having a majority of Republican appointees.

He would fill the last remaining vacancy on the court, which has 14 authorized seats.

Unlike many other Trump nominees, Phipps said he believed the landmark civil rights ruling in Brown v. Board of Education was correctly decided.

Three district court nominees also testified, with only Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) present:

  • Charles Eskridge, nominated to the Southern District of Texas;
  • William Stickman, nominated to the Western District of Pennsylvania;
  • and Jennifer Wilson, nominated to the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick L. Gregory in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Crawley at; Jessie Kokrda Kamens at