WASHINGTON (CN) – A quartet of Trump judicial nominees vowed on Wednesday to follow Supreme Court precedent if confirmed, but some lawmakers on Capitol Hill appeared to remain doubtful over the nominees’ positions on issues ranging from abortion to climate change.
The nominees appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee were Ryan Nelson, who has been tapped for a seat on Ninth Circuit; Stephen Clark, who is seeking a seat on the federal court for the Eastern District of Missouri; John O’Connor, who is seeking a position on the federal bench in Oklahoma; and Joshua Wolson, who has been nominated to the federal bench in Pennsylvania.
Wednesday was Nelson's second appearance before a senate panel. Trump previously nominated him as solicitor for the Interior Department.
Nelson passed muster with a senate committee for that position, but couldn’t pass a vote by the full senate.
A 20-year member of the Federalist Society, he was deputy assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources division of the Justice Department before becoming general counsel in 2009 for Melalecua, a marketing firm.
He was endorsed by Republicans like Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho who said Nelson’s experience at the DOJ gave him an “understanding of unique issues involving land and water.”
The Ninth Circuit, Risch said, is “ground zero for most public lands’ decisions,” and makes for a good fit for Nelson who has overseen 500 appeals and personally argued 13 of them in nine of 12 regional circuits throughout the country.
Nelson said he wouldn’t waiver if forced to rule against the Trump administration on matters of the environment, or any other.
“You have experience,” Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said, “But I have questions over whether you accept scientific evidence on climate change.”
In September 2017, when Nelson went through a nomination hearing for solicitor at the Interior Department before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont asked Nelson if he believed climate change was real. Nelson said the climate was changing but “many factors” were the cause. He wouldn’t say if human activity was among them.
Sen. Harris asked Nelson again Thursday.
“I’m not a scientist, but I do agree human activity has contributed," he said. "To what degree, I’m not prepared to address. I would like to look at full record before making any broader pronouncement.”
He hesitated when asked about the veracity of an EPA study which found greenhouse gases threaten public health. He eventually conceded its accuracy, saying he trusted the agency to report accurately.
Nelson’s testimony also hit a rough spot when he was questioned by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii. Hirono strove to revisit the accuracy of statements he made during his earlier nomination hearing.
At that hearing, he offered support for Trump’s America First Energy Plan, a strategy largely dependent on fossil fuels like coal.
At the time, Nelson said he was “convinced” the plan would “increase the value of natural resources for future generations.”
Hirono told him Wednesday that the earlier display of bias unsettled her, and asked whether, if confirmed, he would recuse himself from cases where litigants challenge the Trump administration’s environmental policies.
Nelson denied making the statement, causing Hirono to raise an eyebrow.
“When you tell me I’m misquoting the record from the committee on which I sit, I’m mystified,” she said.
“I’ll take a look at that but … I would agree to adhere to and be bound by any of the statues that would be applicable where recusal is necessary,” Nelson said.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., then grilled Nelson for his role as general counsel at Maleleuca, which he said some state regulators have suggested may be little more than a pyramid scheme.
Nelson said the investigation of those allegations occurred long before he became associated with the firm. The same was true of a controversy the company became embroiled in over its CEO's controversial views on members of the LGBT community.
Nelson said assured the senator that since he's been with Maleleuca “not a single penny” has been spent on anti-LGBT activities.
The panel next turned its attention to Stephen Clark, with several committee members taking issue with his history of anti-abortion statements and activities.
Clark, a member of the Federalist Society, served on the Lawyers for Life board of directors from 2013 to 2017.
In February 2016, Clark gave a speech at Duke University where he said medical schools who partner with Planned Parenthood were “training the abortionists of the future.”
Clark admitted his statements were made from a place of personal advocacy, telling lawmakers he understood the difference between a “zealous advocate” and “a neutral, impartial arbiter of the law.”
But to discuss his beliefs further would be “inappropriate,” he told the committee.
Clark, like other nominees, repeated his vow to uphold Supreme Court precedent unflinchingly, but Sen. Hirono responded with skepticism. Reading from a speech he gave at the Thomas International Center in 2016, Hirono quoted Clark: “Contrary to popular belief, Roe did not decide as a matter of law or scientific fact that life begins at the second trimester of pregnancy.”
“You went on to say: the court decided that a woman has a privacy right in her womb that trumps the privacy right of the state and life,” Hirono said, adding that she was also concerned about a presentation Clark made for Lawyers for Life in which he suggested lawyers use legal strategy to obstruct abortion providers.
Clark said he understood Hirono’s “concerns” but he never strayed from Michigan statutes at the time which allowed for injunctions prohibiting some abortions and for the filing of guardian ad litem status for fetuses.
Roe is “good law and binding precedent,” he said, before promising to enforce all of the high court’s abortion jurisprudence.
Nominee Joshua Wolson faced similar questions on abortion Wednesday. But like Clark, he said his rulings would be guided by the Supreme Court, not personal opinion.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, told Wolson his answer was disingenuous.
“What if the Supreme Court reversed Brown v. Board of Education? Would you think that decision is correctly decided?”
“If Brown were reversed and I was in the position of controlling a new standard, my job would be to apply that standard,” Wolson said.
“So you don’t have an opinion if Brown [or any other case] was decided correctly. You’re just going to say, whatever Supreme Court said is what I’ll follow … but I’m asking for your personal belief,” Blumenthal replied.
Wolson stopped Blumenthal, telling the committee he “resisted the idea of delving into [his] personal views” any further.
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