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Democrats Lack Votes To Block Trump's Federal Judge Nominees

Nov 20, 2017
Originally published on November 20, 2017 11:56 pm
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President Trump is making his mark on the federal bench. So far this year, the Senate has confirmed 14 of his picks for judges, and there could be a lot more. Another four dozen or so nominees are going through the process. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports on that process, why Democrats are angry about it and how the American Bar Association is becoming a target in it.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: President Trump's legislative agenda hasn't gotten very far in Congress this year, but when it comes to federal judges, the White House is winning. Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz...

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TED CRUZ: I believe perhaps the most long-lasting and significant legacy will be the men and women appointed and confirmed to the federal bench.

JOHNSON: The Senate Judiciary Committee is zipping through confirmation hearings for judge picks. Sometimes Republicans are stacking three or four or more nominees into the same hearing. That's what happened last week. Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, who appears on the president's short list for the U.S. Supreme Court, appeared along with five other judge candidates.

Willett's in line for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. He's got a long public record, including controversial tweets. Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont asked about one tweet where Willett suggested he could support a constitutional right to marry bacon. Willett explained it came one day after the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage was a fundamental right.

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DON WILLETT: Senator, as for the bacon tweet, that was the day after the Obergefell decision was issued. And it was my attempt to inject a bit of levity. The country was filled with rancor and polarization. It was a divisive time in the nation.

PATRICK LEAHY: And you think that - that that cut back the divisiveness with a comment like that?

JOHNSON: California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the first woman on the Judiciary Committee, asked Willett about a memo he wrote in 1998. The memo counseled then-Texas Governor George W. Bush against signing a proclamation to honor businesswomen. Willett wrote he resisted the idea of glass ceilings, pay equity and the need for better working conditions for women. But at the hearing, he said his own mother had suffered harassment and discrimination as a waitress at a truck stop. Senator Feinstein asked him to square that old memo with his testimony.

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DIANNE FEINSTEIN: The question is simple. Do you still hold those beliefs?

WILLETT: I'm sorry, Senator Feinstein. Would you mind repeating the question?

JOHNSON: The American Bar Association has rated Willett as well-qualified for the judge post, but so far this year, the ABA has concluded four of Trump's picks are not qualified. That's prompted Republicans to target the people doing the ratings. Texas Senator John Cornyn...

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JOHN CORNYN: I think the ABA has a useful role to play. But when they get outside their lane and they start expressing opinions on nominees based on politics or ideology, then I don't think their recommendation has - should have any weight in our deliberations whatsoever.

PAMELA BRESNAHAN: We're not here to become a political arm of anybody.

JOHNSON: Pamela Bresnahan leads the ABA committee that evaluates judge nominees. She says the group performs dozens of interviews with people who know the candidates to find out if they're qualified and have a good judicial temperament.

BRESNAHAN: This is a process that's gone on for 60 years, and we think we get it right most of the time.

JOHNSON: One person who disagrees is the White House counsel Don McGahn. He told lawyers at the conservative Federalist Society the ABA will have no role in his process. The audience applauded. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.