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McConnell gambit on federal judges begins to pay off

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, flanked by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., left, and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 2, 2017, following a policy luncheon. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, flanked by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., left, and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 2, 2017, following a policy luncheon. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)
By John T. Bennett Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Monday began the final stages of a Republican strategy to give federal courts a facelift that the party has been methodically carrying out for some time.

Trump nominated 10 judges to federal benches, the first group of nominees for the 119 federal district court and circuit court vacancies he must fill, a number more than twice those that President Barack Obama inherited. The large number of empty benches was by design, with Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., deliberately slow-walking Obama administration nominees for many of those posts in the last two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

The majority leader held just 22 federal or district court nomination hearings during the presidential-election year. The idea was to keep those seats vacant in case the eventual Republican nominee pulled the upset and captured the White House. McConnell’s gambit moved a key step closer to becoming reality when Trump announced the nominations.

And, if confirmed, the nominees will allow Trump and Senate Republicans to influence decisions on hot-button issues across the country, from environment to energy to immigration to a myriad social issues.

Trump “can change the course of the law if he chooses carefully,” Jonathan Nash, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta, recently told CQ Roll Call.

The list of nominees drew praise from influential conservative groups.

“A majority of the nominations are said to be coming from his list of 21 judges he used to select a SCOTUS nominee,” the Heritage Foundation said in a statement, referring to a list that featured now-Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. “Heritage is encouraged to see President Trump continue to use the vetted list of constitutionalist Judges for this next round of nominees.”

Heritage and the Federal Society helped the White House compile the campaign list, as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer noted on Monday.

Judicial Crisis Network Chief Counsel Carrie Severino said the nominees collectively show the president is “building on the success of his nomination of Justice Gorsuch with an outstanding new slate of nominees for the lower federal courts.”

“The nominees have stellar qualifications and a record of courageous commitment to the rule of law that will make them excellent additions to the federal bench,” Severino said. “When it comes to fulfilling his campaign promise to appoint strong, principled judges, Trump is knocking it out of the park.”

For the U. S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, Trump nominated Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan L. Larsen, a former clerk for the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. For the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in St. Louis, Trump went with Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras, who clerked for another conservative SCOTUS justice, Clarence Thomas.

Larsen and Stras were on the campaign list.

“These . highly respected people are the kind of scholars that we need to preserve the very core of our country and make it greater than ever before,” Spicer said, pointing to similar comments candidate Trump said in September.

Trump also tapped Amy Coney Barrett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame who also clerked for Scalia, to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago; John Bush, a Kentucky lawyer for the 6th Circuit, and Kevin Newsom, an Alabama lawyer who clerked for former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

The president also announced four picks for federal district courts: Dabney Friedrich, a former United States Sentencing Commission member, to the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia; Terry Moorer to the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Alabama; David Nye to the Federal District Court of Idaho; Scott Palk to the Federal District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma; and Damien Schiff, to the United States Court of Federal Claims.

Trump’s first nominee, for the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Amul Thapar, a federal district court judge in Kentucky, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. A confirmation vote has not yet been scheduled.

During his daily press briefing, Spicer said Trump concluded each of the nominees possesses a “deep knowledge of the law and their commitment to upholding constitutional principles.”

Along with the judicial vacancies, the Trump administration also has yet to send the Senate a slew of executive branch nominees. Spicer pushed back on several questions Monday about whether the administration is moving at a slow pace in filling the empty judgeships.

Spicer described the administration’s process as “methodical,” saying the Office of Government Ethics and FBI background checks are time-consuming. “They’re all in the pipeline,” he said of coming nominations, predicting a “robust” pace of announcements.

“We’re doing a great job,” Spicer said, “in filling those key positions.”

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