People For the American Way

Judiciary Committee Advances More Terrible Nominees

News and Analysis

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley successfully pushed 10 judicial nominees through the Judiciary Committee this morning, including four who were—appropriately—opposed by every Democrat.

More than one Democratic committee member noted how the rapid pace of circuit nominees is impeding senators’ ability to adequately review each one’s record. Fortunately for the Republicans, the rapidity doesn’t pose a problem: After all, how much time do you really need to take out your rubber stamp of approval for all things Trump?

Today’s rubber-stamped nominees include:

Don Willett (Fifth Circuit), who has said that many commercial regulations should be determined to be unconstitutional unless the government can justify them. This turns precedent on its head and hearkens to the dark days of the Lochner era, when justices imposed their very conservative economic views on society as constitutional requirements, allowing powerful companies to ruthlessly take advantage of individual workers and consumers who could not defend themselves. Willett has also dismissed requirements for better working conditions for women as just “more government.” He even joined a ruling from the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court concluding that while Obergefell may require states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, it doesn’t necessarily prevent the government from denying employee spousal benefits to same-sex married couples.

Jim Ho (Fifth Circuit), who has written that all restrictions on money in politics should be eliminated. In the Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel, he wrote a still-secret memo that was cited in the infamous “torture memos,” which engaged in legal contortions to allow the president to order illegal torture. He was also involved in crafting the Bush administration’s legal theories to justify ignoring federal laws and the Constitution in the “war on terror”—what Justice O’Connor called “a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens.” Ho has partnered with the anti-LGBTQ organization First Liberty Institute and its former general counsel Jeff Mateer (who calls trans kids satanic and participated in Kevin Swanson’s notorious “kill the gays” conference and has himself been nominated to be a federal district court judge).

Steve Grasz (Eighth Circuit), who a unanimous panel of American Bar Association committee members concluded would be unable to separate his very strong personal anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ positions from his judicial rulings. Grasz finds himself in rare company. Since the late 1970s, only three nominees before Grasz had earned the “distinction” of a unanimous “unqualified” rating from the ABA, and only one of those earned that rating because of bias. Grasz, while working in the Nebraska attorney general’s office, led efforts to outlaw late-term abortions and suggested in writing that judges should not follow certain Supreme Court precedent they disagree with (unless the circumstances are identical to the Supreme Court case). He also stated that the term “sexual orientation” in a hate crimes bill could be interpreted to include “all orientations of a sexual nature (bigamy, pedophilia, etc.).”

Mark Norris (Western District of Tennessee), who as the Tennessee Senate Majority Leader has pushed to impose legal inequality on disfavored groups. He supported the state law nullifying a Memphis anti-discrimination ordinance protecting LGBTQ people. After Obergefell, he personally intervened in a lesbian couple’s divorce case and urged the judge in the case not to treat the couple as married for the purpose of child custody laws. He has made it much harder to remove monuments honoring the Confederacy or the founder of the KKK. And when mostly Muslim refugees from Syria were coming to America in fear of their lives, Norris led an effort to prevent any of them from being settled in Tennessee.

While it’s bad news that these four men were approved for lifetime judicial positions by the committee, a number of committee Democrats did a service by showing up and explaining in detail why these nominees are not qualified. Had they not, Grassley would have held a brief meeting, with a quick vote and no public debate. Instead, Democrats insisted on speaking before the vote, making sure the nominees’ disturbing records would not be swept under the rug.

Sadly, these are hardly atypical Trump nominees. As he continues to send dangerously unqualified ideologues to the Senate for consideration, the Democrats should use every tool available to them to prevent their confirmation. Now is not a time for business as usual.


Don Willett, James Ho, judicial nominations, Lower Federal Courts, Mark Norris, Protecting Lower Courts, Steven Grasz