Judiciary Snapshot: Trump Nominees Confirmed May 20-24

This is the latest installment in a series on the progress of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees in the Senate.

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Senate this week confirmed five of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees, including one to the Ninth Circuit.

Daniel Collins, Ninth Circuit

The Senate confirmed Collins to the Ninth Circuit on Tuesday, the second Trump nominee confirmed to the court in a week.

Collins is a partner at the Los Angeles firm Munger, Tolles & Olson, a job he has held since 2003. A former clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia, Collins also held jobs in the George W. Bush Justice Department and as a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles.

Collins did not have the support of either of his home-state senators and faced opposition from Democrats over his representation of fossil fuel companies in court.

Read his full nomination story here.

Howard Nielson, U.S. District Court for the District of Utah

Confirmed 51-47 on Wednesday, Nielson was one of the longest-delayed Trump judicial nominees, having been first nominated for a position on the bench in September 2017.

Nielson faced significant questions from Democrats about his work in the courtroom, specifically one case in which he was part of a team of lawyers that defended California’s Proposition 8, a state ballot measure that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

Nielson’s team tried to have the opinion that found the ballot measure unconstitutional tossed out because the judge who wrote it, U.S. District Jude Vaughn Walker, did not disclose that he was gay. Nielson’s name appears along with seven other lawyers at the top of the motion, but the document was signed by another attorney at Nielson’s firm.

In the motion, the attorneys argued Walker should have made clear whether he and his long-time partner intended to get married if the ballot measure was struck down and that by keeping this information from the public, he created the possible impression of a conflict.

“Simply stated, under governing California law, Chief Judge Walker currently cannot marry his partner, but his decision in this case, and the sweeping injunction he entered to enforce it, would give him the right to do so,” the motion states.

When senators pressed Nielson on the motion, the attorney responded that the views included in court documents do not represent his personal opinion, but instead the best argument he could make on behalf of his client.

“In Hollingsworth and in other cases I have developed specific legal arguments to support my clients’ general views and positions,” Nielson wrote in response to questions submitted after his nomination hearing. “The arguments I present as an advocate are always offered on behalf of my clients, however, not myself.”

Nielson is a partner at the Washington, D.C., firm Cooper & Kirk and also spent time at the Justice Department from 2001 to 2005. Nielson clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court and worked at the Washington, D.C., firm Jones Day from 1999 to 2001.

Stephen Clark, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri

Confirmed with a 53-45 vote on Wednesday, Clark faced opposition from Democrats for his record on abortion. 

Clark in 2016 gave a presentation at Duke University saying he has found it “very, very fulfilling and rewarding” to do “pro-life legal work” and he filed briefs on behalf of clients opposing the federal health care law’s contraceptive mandate.

In a speech, Clark also said “one of the next evolutions of same-sex marriage is polygamy,” explaining at his nomination hearing that he meant there remain questions about the “limiting principles” included in the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.

When faced with these questions, Clark followed other Trump nominees’ leads by saying he would follow relevant Supreme Court precedent and leave his personal views behind once he took the bench.

“While I have advocated on behalf of clients asserting the right to life, the numerous letters to the Judiciary Committee in support of my nomination demonstrate that I have a history of impartiality, integrity and honesty,” Clark wrote in response to questions submitted after his nomination hearing.

Clark has worked at the St. Louis Runnymede Law Group since 2008, previously spending time at the firms Husch Blackwell and Polsinelli. 

Carl J. Nichols, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

Nichols was confirmed with a 55-43 vote on Wednesday.

When serving in the George W. Bush Justice Department, Nichols was the lead attorney defending White House counsel Harriet Miers and former White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten from a House committee’s effort to enforce a subpoena seeking their testimony on the administration’s firing of U.S. attorneys.

In a brief Nichols signed off on, the administration argued the dispute was not meant to be resolved in the courts and that Miers and Bolten’s testimony would be inappropriate because it concerned the advice of the president’s “most intimate advisers.” The arguments are similar to those the Trump administration has advanced in fighting against House subpoenas.  

When asked about his views of executive power now, Nichols told Senator Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, he argued the case as best he could for his client, but that his job would fundamentally change on the bench.

“As a litigator representing the executive branch in those cases, I vigorously defended my clients’ interests and the policy decisions made by other, more senior executive branch employees, but was not responsible for those policy decisions,” Nichols wrote in response to questions submitted after his nomination hearing. “If I am confirmed, I will not be a litigator representing a party, but a judge whose obligation is to decide cases fairly, based on existing law and relevant precedent.”

Nichols joined the firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr in 2010, having spent 2005 to 2009 at the Justice Department. Before joining the Bush administration, Nichols worked at the Washington, D.C., firm Boies Schiller Flexner and clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas and D.C. Circuit Judge Laurence Silberman.

Kenneth Bell, U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina

Bell was the final judge the Senate confirmed this week, heading to the bench with a 55-43 vote Wednesday.

Bell, an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in 1990, faced questions about public comments he made about abortion and the 2016 election.

In one letter to the editor he wrote in the Charlotte Observerin 1995, Bell decried the “indefensibility of the abortion rights position” and said abortion is only a “hard decision” if the “mother knows it is a child rather than a hangnail.”

Bell told senators he respects that abortion is a difficult decision for women and, like other nominees, promised to abide by Supreme Court precedent on the subject if confirmed to the bench.

Similarly, Bell faced questions about a 2016 opinion piece he penned arguing Hillary Clinton should have been prosecuted for using a private email server while serving as secretary of state. A former federal prosecutor, Bell said former FBI Director James Comey “got out of his lane” by recommending Clinton not be charged.

“My primary criticism of Director Comey in the July 2016 op-ed was his usurpation of the attorney general’s charging decision,” Bell explained to Hirono in questions submitted in writing after his nomination hearing. “FBI agents conduct investigations; Department of Justice officials make charging decisions. In this instance, Director Comey assumed the authority to do both.”

Bell has been a partner at the Charlotte, N.C., firm McGuire Woods since 2009, and previously spent time at the firms Hunton & Williams and Mayer Brown.

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