Senate Judiciary Panel Approves Eight Trump Judicial Nominees

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Senate Judiciary Committee approved eight nominees to federal courts around the country on Thursday, including Justice Neil Gorsuch’s replacement on the 10th Circuit.

The eight judicial nominees the Judiciary Committee approved on Thursday are the most the panel has sent to the full Senate in a single day since President Donald Trump took office. Four of the judges were controversial, receiving committee approval on 11-9 party-line votes.

Perhaps the most high-profile of these is Colorado Supreme Court Justice Allison Eid, whom Trump nominated in June to replace Gorsuch on the 10th Circuit. A member of the conservative Federalist Society, Eid was on Trump’s short list of potential nominees to the vacant seat on the Supreme Court.

Eid’s confirmation hearing bore some similarities to that of her predecessor on the 10th Circuit, as Democrats criticized her for her conservative record on the bench. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., specifically prodded Eid at her September nomination hearing over a dissent Eid wrote holding a hotel should not have faced a lawsuit brought by a group of women who got into a car accident after being kicked out of the building for being drunk and disorderly.

At her nomination hearing, Eid justified her opinion by pointing out the women walked past a line of taxis before deciding to drive home instead.

On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also hit Eid for writing an opinion arguing juveniles already sentenced to life without parole could not receive retroactive relief after the Supreme Court’s 2012 decisions in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, which held such sentences violated the Eighth Amendment. The Supreme Court later said in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the decision should apply retroactively.

“As Justice Gorsuch’s replacement on the 10th Circuit, her record suggests she would echo his conservative approach to the law,” Feinstein said at the hearing Thursday.

The committee also approved Stephanos Bibas, a professor at University of Pennsylvania Law School Trump nominated to serve on the Third Circuit. Also a member of the Federalist Society, the former federal prosecutor and clerk for Justice Anthony Kennedy has worked as a professor since 2000.

His time in academia gave Democrats their greatest attack against his nomination, as Durbin brought up a paper Bibas wrote in 2009 but never published that advocated the use of “non-disfiguring corporal punishment” for certain types of crimes.

Bibas said in written responses to questions after his nomination hearing he decided to pull the paper after seeing it was “wrong and deeply offensive.” He said he “workshopped” the paper during the summer of 2009 and took it to heart when a professor at Yale Law School told him about corporal punishment’s role to Jim Crow and slavery.

“It is wrong and deeply offensive,” Bibas wrote in a response to written questions to the committee after his nomination hearing. “As I told Senator Durbin, corporal punishment for crimes is wrong, it is cruel and it is un-American. It is degrading, inhumane and an affront to human dignity. I categorically, emphatically and unequivocally reject it.”

But Durbin did not find Bibas’ response satisfying, and read from the 60-page paper on Thursday before urging his colleagues to vote against the nomination.

“My fellow colleagues, this man is outside of the mainstream of American legal thinking,” Durbin said. “I believe he’s outside the mainstream of conservative political thinking. Who would step forward on the Republican side and call for what this professor has called for? Who would stand up and say this man and that kind of thinking belong in a lifetime appointment on a circuit court, the Third Circuit Court?”

Democrats also hit Bibas for prosecuting a woman who was accused of stealing $7 from a cash register. The woman was acquitted and Bibas called the experience “a humbling one.”

Feinstein and Democrats also vocally opposed Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Liles Burke, Trump’s pick to serve on the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. The top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee specifically had concerns about Burke’s rulings in three death penalty cases while he served on the state court.

One case Feinstein detailed involved a defendant with an IQ of 70 whose death penalty sentence Burke upheld in 2013. The Supreme Court vacated the judgment on appeal in light of its holding in Hall v. Florida, but Burke reaffirmed the sentence on remand.

Burke told the committee in written questions after his nomination hearing that he believed the defendant had enough opportunity to present evidence of his intellectual disabilities before the trial court and that sending the case back to the lower court would have “been beyond the scope of the United States Supreme Court’s order.”

But Feinstein said the death penalty decisions raised flags about how he will serve on the federal bench.

“Mr. Chairman, the death penalty is the most serious punishment the government can impose and I’m concerned about Judge Burke’s record on these cases, both in terms of his views but also for his willingness not to follow Supreme Court precedent,” Feinstein said Thursday.

The final nominee to receive a formal vote on Thursday was U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana nominee Michael Juneau, an attorney at the Lafayette, La., firm Juneau David. While Democrats did not express their reasons for opposing Juneau during Thursday’s meeting, they pressed him during his nomination process for being a member of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative religious freedom legal advocacy group the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as an anti-LGBT hate group.

The group is representing Colorado cake maker Jack Phillips before the Supreme Court after he refused to make a custom wedding cake for a gay couple.

Juneau told the committee he is an “allied attorney” with the Alliance Defending Freedom, but said the SPLC’s description of the group “is inaccurate in all respects.”

The other four nominees the committee approved on Thursday went through the committee unanimously, with senators indicating their support with a simple voice vote.

This included Tilman Self III, a Georgia Court of Appeals judge with strong ties to the Republican party. A member of the Federalist Society, Self worked as general counsel to the Bibb County Republican Party from 1998 to 2002 and also served as county chairman for Republican Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue’s 2002 campaign and President George W. Bush’s 2004 run to the White House.

In written responses to questions for the record after his nomination hearing, Self said he put his partisan past behind him after winning a nonpartisan election to a state court in 2005 and promised to not allow his political opinions to enter his judging.

“Over the course of my judicial career, I have done my best to engender confidence in our judicial system by making sure that all persons before the court are treated fairly, with compassion, courtesy, patience, dignity and respect,” Self wrote. “I will continue to do so in the future.”

The committee also approved Walter David Counts III, a magistrate judge at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas Trump nominated to serve on the same court as a judge. Prior to taking over as a magistrate judge, Counts worked as a federal prosecutor in the Western District of Texas, having also worked in private practice and as a congressional intern for former Rep. Jack Hightower, a Texas Democrat.

Counts was nominated by President Barack Obama in March 2016 for a spot on the same court, but the Republican blockade against Obama nominees in the last year of his term prevented Counts from taking the seat. Trump re-nominated Counts in September.

The committee approved another Obama nominee on Thursday as well, sending Karen Scholer to the full Senate unanimously. Obama nominated Scholer to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas in March 2016, with Trump picking her for a spot on the U.S. District for the Northern District of Texas in September.

Scholer served as a state district judge in Texas’ 95th Judicial District Court from 2001 to 2008 before leaving to take a job as a partner at the law firm Jones Day. Scholer has since worked at the Dallas firm Carter Scholer, working on complex business and civil litigation cases.

The committee also approved Marvin Quattlebaum, whom Trump nominated to a spot on the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. A partner at the Greenville, S.C., firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, Quattlebaum has spent his legal career in private practice, focusing on commercial litigation and product liability.

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