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While all eyes are on SCOTUS, Trump packs the federal judiciary

Earl O. Hutchinson
While all eyes are on SCOTUS, Trump packs the federal judiciary
The Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. Photo: Claire Anderson

Brett Kavanaugh will be a household name when the fight over his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court formally comes to the Senate for confirmation. Democrats will go to the barricades to paint him as a dangerous Antonin Scalia-style judicial reactionary who will decisively and dangerously tip the delicate liberal-conservative SCOTUS balance wildly to the right for years to come. The likelihood is that he will. It’s a battle that must be fought.

But how many know names such as L. Steven Grasz, Kyle Duncan, John K. Bush, Ryan W. Bounds, or Paul B. Matey? The names almost certainly draw blanks with most Americans — but not with Trump, GOP senators, the right-wing Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society. They are among the dozens of Scalia-clone lower court judges that were carefully vetted for Trump by the two ultra-conservative judicial watchdog groups.

Most have been confirmed with little public fanfare and even less public notice. They have in almost all cases been confirmed despite the loud objections of Democratic senators from their home states who once had much say-so with their use of the so-called “Blue Slip” challenge to a politically and ideologically objectionable judicial pick. In the past that might have been enough to kill a judiciary pick. Not anymore. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and GOP Senate leaders have simply ignored them and confirmed the objectionable Trump picks anyway.

At last count, there were dozens, and they now make up one in seven of the judges in the federal judiciary nationally. There will be more to come as future vacancies open and Trump can nominate anyone he wants who meets the Federalist Society’s hard-right ideological litmus test with almost no chance that they will be shot down in the Senate.

So, that means that a judge such as Kyle Duncan, a Trump pick confirmed for an Appeals court spot, can blithely declare that same sex marriage puts in mortal peril the nation’s “civic peace.” Or, another Trump pick can rail at “race focused groups,” with virtual impunity for his extremist views. Or, there’s Judge Bush, who, as a one-time blogger, spun every racist and crank “birther” lie about former President Obama — and then lied when called out on his birtherism during his confirmation hearing. It didn’t matter; he, as just about all the others, was confirmed anyway.

These are the judges who do far more than the Supreme Court can to impact, mangle and entomb law and public policy for decades to come. They have a lifetime appointment. They dwarf the number of cases that the Supreme Court will ever hear — roughly 60,000 cases a year to the Supreme Court’s roughly 75. These judges are the real judges of last resort for a controversial legal and impactful case. Their rulings are the ones that stand as binding law for not just years, but potentially generations to come. They are anything but non-partisan and objective. Many of them are just as hidebound politically partisan as a Clarence Thomas or Gorsuch. This partisanship often comes through in their rulings and opinions on hot-button cases that involve civil rights, civil liberties, the environment and what corporations can and can’t do.

A 25-year study by George Washington University, from 1970 to 1994, found that by a wide margin, Republican-appointed judges turned back challenges by individuals and environmental groups of Environmental Protection Agency decisions. Democratic-appointed judges, by contrast, accepted challenges in the majority of cases. The study was done almost 20 years ago, and the numbers would almost certainly be the same or higher in assessing cases that more ideologically-bent federal appeals court judges have heard in the past two decades..

Trump and the conservative legal and public interest groups know this. He quickly recognized that given his unfettered license to appoint and get confirmed to the federal judiciary whomever the Federalist Society told him to plop on the benches, he could get an easy political victory. He could brag to his base and the GOP that he kept his promise to stuff the judiciary from top to bottom with hordes of Scalia judicial clones. Equally important, he can position hardline conservative legal guns on the lower courts who will provide a choice selection of right-wing judicial warriors when more SCOTUS vacancies open.

It’s scary. However, while the Democrats are virtually powerless to stop the Trump hard-right packing of the federal judiciary, they can and must continue to try to keep the public’s eye on Trump’s wave of dangerous ideologues on the lower courts, until they can stop that tide.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. 

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