By Tim Ryan
WASHINGTON (CN) – The Senate Judiciary Committee approved five judicial nominees on Thursday, including a White House lawyer up for a spot on the DC Circuit and two federal district court nominees the American Bar Association rated not qualified earlier this week.
The votes on two of the three controversial nominees were contentious and fell strictly along party lines, with Republicans supporting the nominees and Democrats vigorously opposing them. Holly Lou Teeter, a nominee for the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, received a yes vote from all but one Democrat on the committee despite her receiving a not qualified rating from the ABA.
The ABA said Teeter did not have enough trial experience to earn a qualified rating, but as Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., explained on Thursday, she missed the organization’s benchmark by a “matter of months.” Durbin said Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran forwarded “unequivocal” support from judges in the state that convinced him Teeter is qualified for a spot on a federal bench.
U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama nominee Brett Talley came with no such recommendations and also carried the baggage of a series of blog posts he wrote defending gun rights. Talley graduated from Harvard Law School in 2007 and admitted to the committee he has never tried a case in federal court.
A member of the conservative Federalist Society, Talley told senators in written responses to questions posed to him after his nomination hearing that he worked behind the scenes preparing motions for many cases while deputy solicitor general of Alabama, even if that work never put him before a judge during a trial.
Talley also told senators he argued three cases before the 11th Circuit and one before the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and that he is working with two federal judges for whom he clerked to help him prepare for life on the bench.
But those assurances were not enough for Democrats, as all nine voted against Talley at a committee meeting on Thursday.
“There have to be conservative Republican attorneys and state judges that you can find to fill these spots where we won’t run into this absolute dearth and scarcity of experience,” Durbin said during the meeting. “It just doesn’t speak well to the whole process.”
Talley could not escape blog posts he wrote calling it “an outrage” that gun control advocates were demanding new gun laws in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Talley warned readers the Obama administration was readying the “greatest attack” on constitutional rights in “our lifetimes” and encouraged them to join the National Rifle Association.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was concerned Talley would not commit to recusing himself from cases involving weapons or the NRA.
Democrats also unanimously opposed Greg Katsas, Trump’s nominee for a spot on the DC Circuit who currently serves as the president’s deputy counsel.
A member of the Federalist Society as well, Katsas said he has given legal advice on a number of controversial Trump policies, including the ban on immigration from several countries with Muslim majorities and the decision to end the program known as DACA that provides protections for people in the country illegally who were brought to the U.S. as children.
Democrats said his work on these issues raise questions about his ability to be independent from the Trump administration while sitting on a court most regard as the second most important in the country. Feinstein said this is especially true because Katsas was unable to detail all of the legal issues on which he gave the Trump White House advice.
Katsas most notably declined to say whether he offered advice on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, telling the committee at his nomination hearing in October he did not want to say anything that “inadvertently undermines his work.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, defended Katsas, saying the former clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas simply performed the job of a lawyer advising his client while in the White House.
“For one, his client is the president of the United States,” Grassley said. “As in all attorney-client relationships, Mr. Katsas’ job is to provide legal advice to the president. He’s not responsible for the president’s policy decisions. Thus, any disagreement with the administration’s policies is no basis for voting against Mr. Katsas, who has served his country with distinction for many years in many different areas.”
The committee also unanimously approved U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama nominee Jeffrey Beaverstock and U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama nominee and Federalist Society member Emily Marks.