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Democrats Grill Fifth Circuit Nominee on Past Political Stances

A Mississippi state court judge nominated to a seat on the Fifth Circuit faced opposition from Senate Democrats on Wednesday for his partisan past, particularly his support of voter identification laws and criticism of the Affordable Care Act.

WASHINGTON (CN) — A Mississippi state court judge nominated to a seat on the Fifth Circuit faced opposition from Senate Democrats on Wednesday for his partisan past, particularly his support of voter identification laws and criticism of the Affordable Care Act.

Judge Cory Wilson currently serves on the Mississippi Court of Appeals, a position he has held since 2019. Before that, Wilson was a Republican in the Mississippi House of Representatives and has spent time in other government positions and in private practice.

Wednesday was his second time before the Senate Judiciary Committee, as President Donald Trump initially nominated him for a seat on a federal trial court in Mississippi before tapping him for the appeals court vacancy.

Democrats and liberal advocacy groups have strongly opposed Wilson both in his path to the circuit court and when he was up for a spot on the trial court over his record as a politician and public comments he has made on health care, voting rights and abortion.

"Your partisan record is not just part of a pattern, it's effectively a requirement for the typical Trump judge nominee," Senator Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, told Wilson while calling into the hearing remotely.

Testifying before the committee on Wednesday, Wilson said his past political positions and public comments were from when his focus was on electoral politics and that he would have "no problem whatsoever" upholding a law he does not personally agree with.

"All those comments you referenced in terms of my writings came at a time before I was ever a judge," Wilson told the committee. "And the role is distinct, it is very different, and my personal views, political views and things have no place in deciding the cases that come before the court."

On health care, Wilson has called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, "illegitimate" and called for the Supreme Court to strike it down "for the sake of the Constitution."

A legal challenge to Obamacare that came through the Fifth Circuit is currently before the Supreme Court. Wilson did not commit to recusing himself from the case if it were to go back to the Fifth Circuit after he takes the bench, though he said he would follow applicable recusal rules. 

Democrats in particular called his criticisms of Obamacare disqualifying due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Defending against the charges, Wilson told senators he was concerned about health care access during his time in politics, even if he did not agree with the exact provisions in Obamacare.

Also drawing concern from Democrats was Wilson's support for voter identification laws. Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J., pressed Wilson on his views on the issue and whether he sees in-person voter fraud as a major concern in the United States.

Wilson responded by saying he litigated cases in private practice over "significant departures" from the state's voting laws, but Booker said there is a distinction between those allegations and in-person voter fraud, which is rare.

As evidence of his opposition to the judge's record on the issue, Booker cited a 2011 article Wilson wrote that dismissed as "poppycock" allegations that a Mississippi voter identification law would suppress the vote in the state.

"I just really worry about, sir — and I appreciate you answering my questions directly — about someone going to the bench and might have to hear some of these cases who either wrongfully thinks that [in-person voter fraud] is a big problem in the United States or, two, thinks that this whole concern of people like me is nothing but 'poppycock' or a form of tyranny," Booker said.

Wilson also drew heat for his opinionated Twitter presence, where he wondered whether former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was "felony dumb or willfully ignorant" and referred to Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a "claptrap." 

"Broadly speaking, the point I was simply trying to make is that policy disputes are one thing, but some of your comments are so sharply partisan and demonstrate such personal hostility about who are real Americans and who count that it leaves me gravely concerned about your inclination to be a fair-minded jurist," Senator Chris Coons, D-Delaware, said.

While in office, Wilson also supported a bill that prohibited abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected and a 15-week abortion ban. In a questionnaire for earlier state office he said he supported a law requiring women who are considering having an abortion to be shown information about a fetus' ability to feel pain.

When given the chance to describe his judicial philosophy, Wilson said he considers himself an originalist and downplayed the importance of legislative history in interpreting laws.

"We don't have legislative history in the state of Mississippi, that's probably a good thing," Wilson said. "My first resort is the text of the statute. What it says is what was enacted and that's what we're to apply."

Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the committee, offered support to Wilson after his grilling at the hands of Democrats, saying their opposition was based in policy disagreements, not specific concerns about whether he will make a good judge.

"You've been accused of being a conservative Republican," Graham said. "I don't think that's disqualifying."

Wilson's path to the nomination comes after U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden failed to get support from conservatives on the committee, who said Ozerden did not have the legal track record and ties to the conservative legal movement worthy of a seat on the New Orleans-based appeals court.

Lena Zwarensteyn, the fair courts director for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, tied Wilson's status as Ozerden's replacement to Democrats' larger concerns about how he will serve on the federal bench

"I think what we saw in Senator Hirono's questions, but also a number of other questions, is that there is zero question where Cory Wilson stands on a number of the issues, whether that be the Affordable Care Act, LBGTQ equality, reproductive freedoms or voting rights," Zwarensteyn said in an interview. "And that's the precise reason that he's been plucked for this seat."

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