Controversial DC Circuit Nominee Advances to Full Senate

Judge Justin Walker is sworn in prior to testifying before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on May 6, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool Photo via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Democrats accused GOP colleagues of cronyism on Thursday as they pushed forward the D.C. Circuit nomination of a judge known to be a lifelong friend of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee propelled the nomination of 38-year-old U.S. District Judge Justin Walker, with Chair Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., making the appointment his first line of business when senators returned to Washington last month with the city still shut down due to Covid-19. 

But in the midst of a global pandemic and nationwide protests over racial injustice, Democrats are alarmed by the appointment of Walker, who, with just six months experience at the district level, has boldly declared it his mission to upend the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, and has come out against affirmative action. 

“Even in the middle of a pandemic, the Republican Party of America is not stopping its attack on the Affordable Care Act. And yet it has never, underline never, produced a substitute or an alternative,” Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said, noting the most recent Trump nominee to take a seat on the D.C. appeals court, U.S. Circuit Judge Neomi Rao, has also openly voiced opposition to Obamacare.

Walker faced harsh questioning at his nomination hearing over his position that the Supreme Court ruling the Affordable Care Act constitutional was an “indefensible decision.” Democrats have repeatedly demanded to know why Republicans are rushing to confirm the nominee when the judge who will be vacating the seat on the appeals court will not step down until September. 

The E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse, home of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. (Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

Highlighting comments from Walker’s investiture speech in March, that although his “legal principles are prevalent, they have not yet prevailed,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the judge is mission-driven. 

“That’s his goal, as a judge. Policy-driven goals. And first among them to destroy the Affordable Care Act and our health care system,” Blumenthal said. 

Senator Kamala Harris, D-Calif., focused on Walker writing in 2018 that the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — who the Kentucky district judge once clerked for — would bring about a “conservative revolution as big as the Reagan Revolution” and predicting an end to affirmative action in America. 

“Let’s think about the message that advancing a judicial nominee like this sends to all of these communities of color and their allies, particularly at a time when people have taken to the streets to protest the violence and injustice that black people have faced for generations in America,” Harris said. 

A long list of organizations have opposed Walker’s nomination, among them the Human Rights Coalition, National Education Association and NAACP. 

But Democrats argue that Walker’s firm conservative stances, spurring strong criticism over his nomination, are exactly what earned him a fast-track appointment to the D.C. Circuit, known to be a farm team for the Supreme Court. Four of the nine current justices sat on the appeals court before their appointment to the Supreme Court. 

Lena Zwarensteyn, director of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ Fair Courts Campaign, said in a statement following Thursday’s vote that while communities are devastated by Covid-19 and police brutality, Republicans are prioritizing an unfit judicial nominee. 

“Their desperate rush to fill a seat not scheduled to become vacant until September – in the midst of this crisis – is shameful,” Zwarensteyn said. 

Democrats had called on Walker to commit to recuse himself from any cases involving the Affordable Care Act if confirmed. The judge declined during his nomination hearing, saying he must “take every case case-by-case with an open mind.”

But Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron said that demand is inherently problematic. 

“The problem with him recusing himself is he has been outspoken on so many issues,” she said. 

Aron argued that over the years Republicans have specifically elevated judges to appeals courts “who will turn the clock back on the advances in progress made in civil rights.”

“The whole reason he’s been nominated is his soldiering on as an advocate for the right wing, which pleases Mitch McConnell [to] no end,” Aron said. 

Before Thursday’s vote, Durbin called on GOP senators to be honest with themselves, saying that in the entire United States there must be a conservative judge qualified for the appointment to the second highest court in the land. 

“This man is not that person,” he said, “and we all know it.”

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