Judiciary Snapshot: Trump Nominees Confirmed Oct. 14-18

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

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Senate confirmed four of President Donald Trump’s nominees to federal district courts this week, while the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced six other nominees.

Charles Eskridge, picked for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, received the most opposition from Democrats of any of the four judges confirmed Wednesday, but still cleared the Senate on a bipartisan 61-31 vote.

The U.S. Capitol is seen at sunset on Jan. 24, 2019. (AP file photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Eskridge since 2015 has worked at the Houston firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, having spent the previous decade as an associate and partner at the firm Susman Godfrey in the same city.

A member of the Federalist Society, Democrats questioned Eskridge about his partisan leanings, particularly his donations to Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, Texas Republicans who both sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Eskridge explained he knew both senators before they took office and said his donations were “not with respect towards my application” for a federal judgeship. Cruz and Cornyn recommended Eskridge after a bipartisan judicial screening panel identified him as a potential candidate.

“Throughout his impressive career, Charles has proven himself a seasoned litigator, capable of handling complex cases,” Cornyn said in a statement Wednesday. “I have no doubt he will serve Texas well from the federal bench.”

Rachel Kovner will now take a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York after an 88-3 vote on Wednesday. Kovner was first nominated for the position in May 2018, but the Senate did not take up her nomination before the end of the year.

A former federal prosecutor in New York City, Kovner enjoyed the support of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Kovner was also a former clerk to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and since 2013 has worked as assistant to the solicitor general at the Justice Department, frequently representing the federal government in arguments before the Supreme Court.

David Novak was confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia with a similar 89-3 vote on Wednesday. Novak has served as a magistrate judge on the same court since 2012 and spent the previous 18 years as a federal prosecutor in Virginia.

He was involved in the high-profile prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty in 2005 for his role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and remains the only person involved in the plot to be sentenced in U.S. courts.

Novak, who was also nominated for a judgeship by President George W. Bush, came with the recommendation of Virginia Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Democrats, who praised his confirmation Wednesday.

“We are pleased that the Senate voted to confirm Judge Novak for the Eastern District Court of Virginia,” the senators said in a joint statement. “His experience prosecuting national security matters at the federal level and his service as a magistrate judge have proven he is prepared for the complex cases that will come across his docket. Judge Novak’s distinguished record and praise from the Virginia legal community give us confidence he will serve effectively in this role.”

Finally, the Senate confirmed Frank Volk to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia with a 92-0 vote on Wednesday.

Volk has worked as an adjunct lecturer at the West Virginia University College of Law since 2005 and served in decade-long clerkships for Judges Charles Haden and John Copenhaver on the court on which he will now serve.

While Volk’s experience is not typical of most federal judges, he told senators in response to questions submitted after his nomination hearing that he sees it as an asset.

“For two decades as a law clerk, I was steeped in some of the most unusual, complex, challenging and demanding civil and criminal litigation to be had in multiple districts throughout the Fourth Circuit,” Volk wrote to Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “I believe this experience will be of inestimable and unparalleled value if I am fortunate enough to be confirmed. There is nothing that could have prepared me more thoroughly for the tasks that hopefully lie ahead.”

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Beyond the four judges confirmed, six others drew a step closer to confirmation after being approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday morning.

David Barlow, up for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, John Kness, nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and Austin Huffaker, chosen for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, all received bipartisan support, clearing the committee in identical 19-3 votes.

Senators Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, all of whom are seeking the Democratic nomination for president, were the only Democrats to oppose their nominations.

Justin Walker, a nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky, goes to the Senate floor with considerably more opposition. Though he comes to the committee with high praise from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary has rated him not qualified for the position.

The committee faulted Walker, who is 37, for the brief time he has been out of law school and for his lack of “significant trial experience,” as he has never served as lead counsel on a trial.

A Harvard Law School graduate, Walker currently works as a law professor at the University of Louisville, having completed clerkships after law school for then-D.C. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court.

Walker told the committee during his nomination hearing in July that his clerkships and time as a professor have prepared him “to analyze the kinds of complex legal questions that judges deal with, especially in the majority of what they do, which is motion work.”

But his responses did not calm the nerves of Democrats, who said the Trump administration should look for a more qualified attorney to take the seat.

“I find it hard to believe there’s a shortage of experienced, conservative attorneys and state-court judges in Kentucky who could hit the ground running as a federal judge,” Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said at a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting before the panel advanced the nomination.

Democrats also questioned Walker’s support of Kavanaugh during his contested confirmation process, as he once called the process a “farce” after multiple women accused the judge of sexual misconduct dating back to his time in high school and college.

Facing similar opposition from Democrats was Lee Rudofsky, the former Arkansas solicitor general who is now nominated to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

Like many Trump nominees who served as top attorneys for red states, Rudofsky faced opposition from Democrats over legal positions he took on behalf of the state while in the job. In particular, Democrats opposed his defense of a state ban on abortion after 12 weeks and of a voter identification law.

He also raised eyebrows on the left during his nomination hearing when he disavowed briefs he signed while out of government that urged the Supreme Court to strike down state bans on gay marriage.

Both Rudofsky and Walker cleared the committee with party-line, 12-10 votes.

The final nominee the committee advanced is Eleni Roumel, who is nominated to the Court of Federal Claims, a specialty court that hears claims against the federal government. Unlike other federal courts established under Article III of the Constitution, the court is established under Article I and its nominees serve 15-year terms.

Roumel currently serves in the White House as deputy counsel to Vice President Mike Pence. She previously served as assistant general counsel in the House of Representatives Office of General Counsel while Republicans held the House.

The committee advanced her nomination on a 12-10 vote.

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