PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Ninth Circuit could act as an advocate for Trump’s immigration agenda, according to lawyers who know him – and the nomination highlights Oregon’s divided political landscape with surprising echoes of past conservative movements in the state.
In May, Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, told Trump they were ready to organize a bipartisan committee to vet candidates for the Ninth Circuit position and provide Trump with a list of potential nominees from their state.
Trump apparently had a different process in mind.
In a speech as the Republican nominee for president, Trump promised that his judicial nominees would “all be picked by the Federalist Society.”
Co-founded by former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the group seeks to advance the legal careers of conservatives who espouse originalism – the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted based on the intention of the framers, not as a living document that adapts to a changing American society.
Scalia’s replacement, Justice Neil Gorsuch, is a member of the society, as is Oregon Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Bounds whom Trump nominated for a slot on the Ninth Circuit.
The lifetime appointment could shift the circuit’s reputation as the nation’s most liberal. Bounds would replace Circuit Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, a Portlander known as the circuit’s most conservative judge, who assumed senior status in January.
Instead of choosing a nominee from a list drafted by a bipartisan committee, Trump chose Bounds after Oregon’s lone Republican congressman, Rep. Greg Walden, recommended him to take one of Oregon’s two seats on the circuit.
Walden co-authored the first discarded replacement of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, which the Congressional Budget Office estimated would have cost 23 million people their insurance. He also gave an impassioned speech on the floor of the House defending Ammon Bundy and his followers during the armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
In a letter to President Trump, Walden called Bounds “the rare Oregonian with a sincere commitment to conservative jurisprudence and a distinguished academic record [who would] approach each case as an opportunity to defend our constitutional principles.”
In addition to his membership in the Federalist Society, Bounds has connections that may have helped position him for this appointment. His first job out of law school was as clerk for O’Scannlain, and his sister Lorissa is Walden’s chief of staff.
Sources who spoke on condition of anonymity called Bounds “incisive” and “aggressive,” and said they had no doubt that he would be a “powerful advocate” for a variety of conservative causes.
One prominent public defender told Courthouse News that “from an interpersonal standpoint, Bounds is just a fucking weird dude.”
“He’s the kind of wealthy guy that affects an accent, like Thurston Howell from ‘Gilligan’s Island,’” according to the public defender, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But in terms of his academic qualifications it lines up perfectly with people that end up in federal judgeships.”
Bounds, 44, grew up in rural northeast Oregon. He attended Stanford and Yale Law School, where he was mentored by the law professor Akhil Reed Amar – an originalist who believes the Constitution should be interpreted literally, writes lovingly about the legacy of former Supreme Court justice and Alabama Klansman Hugo Black and who, like Ammon Bundy, carries a pocket-sized Constitution.
Before taking his current job as an assistant U.S. Attorney for Oregon, Bounds served as civil and criminal justice advisor to then-President George W. Bush.
There, Bounds defended immigration judges’ removal orders in appellate courts around the nation and worked to implement the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, a 5-4 ruling that the Constitution protects the right of citizens to bear arms for purposes other than service in a militia or strict self-defense.
U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams, one of the few U.S. attorneys to keep his job after Trump took office, said in a statement that Bounds is a good choice for the Ninth Circuit.
“Ryan is eminently qualified to serve as a judge on the Ninth Circuit,” Williams said. “He is a dedicated public servant and well regarded in the Oregon legal community.”
But Sens. Wyden and Merkley have said they will fight Bounds’ confirmation because he was not vetted by a bipartisan committee.
Through a spokesman, Wyden said Trump cut ahead of Oregon’s traditional vetting process – currently underway but not yet completed. A 15-member committee of the American Bar Association is conducting an “impartial peer review” of Bounds’ qualifications for a position on the Ninth Circuit. The evaluation focuses strictly on Bounds’ “integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament” and will not consider his “philosophy, political affiliation or ideology,” according to the bar. When it is finished, the committee will rate Bounds as either well qualified, qualified or not qualified.
“The process has long been done by a committee of Oregonians that considers applicants from our state’s legal community,” Wyden’s spokesman Hank Stern said in an email. “That process is underway and Oregon’s senators have explained to the White House that this process is part of a long, bipartisan tradition of judicial nominees being thoroughly vetted by a committee of Oregonians in order both to ensure the highest quality candidate and to avoid any taint of nepotism and patronage in a lifetime judicial appointment.”
Wyden and Merkley could withhold the blue slips that signify a senator’s consent for a judicial nominee from their state. In the past, this move would have halted the Senate Judiciary Committee. A common move by Republican senators during the Obama administration, GOP leaders have threatened to put an end to the process they used to keep benches in some jurisdictions empty for over five years.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has said he will not return a blue slip for David Stras, whom Trump nominated for a seat on the Eighth Circuit.
Franken told Slate that Trump was letting the Federalist Society do something that should be done by a bipartisan committee.
“When the [blue-slip] process works as it should, the White House joins with home-state senators to identify qualified, consensus nominees,” Franken said. “And when the president and the senators are of different parties, that should mean identifying judicial moderates. Unfortunately, President Trump has demonstrated that he is less concerned with working collaboratively to fill judicial vacancies than his predecessor, which is not surprising given the fact that he has outsourced the job of identifying potential judges to the far-right Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation.”
In Oregon, Bounds has helped prosecute 551 cases, court records show, involving immigration, the trafficking of exotic wildlife and oil spills from commercial boats.
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney for Oregon John Haub worked closely with Bounds to extend the sentence of Tommy Lee Vasquez by 60 months, after Vasquez beat a fellow prisoner so severely both of his eye sockets were broken.
“Ryan’s strengths are his writing skills and his knowledge of immigration law,” Haub said over the phone.
Haub compared Bounds to Scalia, who died in 2016, and O’Scannlain, whose retirement at the end of the year will open the spot that Bounds hopes to fill.
“He’s a lot like Scalia and O’Scannlain. He knows the law and he will apply it. He’s not going to be an activist judge, applying laws that don’t exist,” Haub said.
Bounds declined to comment for this article. But he emailed Haub earlier this month to thank Haub for volunteering to act “as a cheerleader” for Bounds’ nomination – which could be viewed as deputizing Haub to act as de facto spokesman.
“The law can be hard in applying consequences,” Haub told Courthouse News. “But the courts are supposed to follow and apply the law even though sometimes it would be nicer if people didn’t have to get deported and leave their families behind. But people who bring kids into the world when they’re in the U.S. as undocumented immigrants often cause harm to those kids later, when they commit crimes and get deported.”