Jim Hartman: Trump remaking federal judiciary
The day after House Democrats impeached President Trump, Senate Republicans were busy confirming another 13 federal district court nominees.
In three years in office, Trump has already placed 133 judges on federal district courts (nearly one-fifth of all district court judges), 50 judges to the federal court of appeals (more than a quarter of all appellate judges), just five short of former President Barack Obama’s record in an eight-year span. And, Trump nominated and had two Supreme Court justices confirmed — Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
Senate Democrats now lament the 2013 decision made by Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, then-Senate Majority Leader, to trigger the “nuclear option” reducing the number of senators from 60 to a simple majority (51) to confirm presidential nominees. Reid’s action paved the way for current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to cut debate time and speed the judicial confirmation process.
The First Circuit (Boston) and Third Circuit (Philadelphia) now have Republican-appointed majorities, but Trump’s nominations most notably have changed the composition of the left-dominate Ninth Circuit that presides over nine western states. When Trump became president, only seven of the 29 judges on the Ninth Circuit were appointees of Republican presidents. Trump nominated and the Senate has confirmed 10 appointments to that appellate bench.
The notorious Ninth Circuit is now more balanced — 16 appointees from Democratic presidents and 13 by Republicans. In recent years, the Supreme Court reversed about 80 percent of Ninth Circuit cases it’s reviewed. That will now change.
In December, the two newest federal circuit judges, Lawrence VanDyke and Patrick Bumatay, won Senate confirmation to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals over fierce opposition from Democrats and allied interest groups.
VanDyke, 46, was Nevada’s solicitor general for four years, appointed by then-Attorney General Adam Laxalt, serving previously as solicitor general in Montana. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and was as an editor of the Harvard Law Review. VanDyke clerked for Judge Janice Rogers Brown on the D.C. Circuit Court before launching his appellate career. He was Trump’s nominee for a Nevada seat on the circuit court.
Astonishingly, the liberal-leaning American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary found VanDyke not qualified (along with eight other Trump judicial nominees). He was allegedly “arrogant, lazy, an ideologue, and lacking in knowledge of the day-to-day practice including procedural rules.” The lead ABA evaluator was later revealed to have close ties to a longtime VanDyke political opponent in Montana.
Nevada Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen opposed VanDyke’s nomination as did LBGTQ activists and gun control lobbyists. The Senate confirmed VanDyke in a 51-44 party-line vote.
Bumatay, 41, a federal prosecutor, becomes the first openly gay appellate judge appointed by Trump and the first of Filipino descent. Bumatay is a Yale University (cum laude) graduate, where he was Phi Beta Kappa. He graduated from Harvard Law School. Bumatay clerked for two federal court judges before leading the appellate and narcotics sections for the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego. He was Trump’s nominee for a California seat on the circuit court.
As with three earlier Trump judicial nominees, California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris declined to return “blue slips” indicating their sign-off on Bumatay’s nomination. Democrats were apparently frightened that at his age, with his political identity and top legal mind, Bumatay might be future Supreme Court material. Despite objections from California’s two senators, Bumatay was confirmed 53-40 in another party-line vote.
In November, Trump’s nominee for an Oregon seat on the Ninth Circuit, state Circuit Judge Danielle Hunsaker, 42, an Idaho Law School graduate (summa cum laude), won bipartisan 73-17 Senate confirmation.
The 185 already confirmed Trump nominated judges profoundly remakes the federal judiciary.
Jim Hartman is an attorney residing in Genoa.