WASHINGTON (CN) – The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved four of President Donald Trump’s nominees to seats on federal courts, setting up votes before the full Senate.
Three of the votes were unanimous, but a fourth, on the nomination of Stephen Schwartz to serve on the Court of Federal Claims, was more contentious and split along party lines. Because there are more Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee than Democrats, Schwartz passed through the vote 11-9, even with all Democrats voting against him.
Democrats said Schwartz was not qualified to serve on the court, having spent just nine years practicing law before his nomination. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also noted that Schwartz has never argued before the court Trump nominated him to serve on and highlighted his work defending a school board in a high-profile case challenging a school’s refusal to let a transgender boy use the bathroom of his choice.
“He worked on political issues instead of cases that actually involved the Federal Claims Court,” Feinstein said before voting against Schwartz. “I cannot support this nomination.”
Schwartz also received criticism from Democrats during his nomination process over his involvement with the Federalist Society, a conservative activist legal group that has played a role in vetting Trump’s judicial nominees, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Schwartz told Feinstein in a written questionnaire that he joined the Federalist Society while at the University of Chicago Law School, serving as vice president of the school’s chapter as a student. Schwartz said that was the last time he held a formal role in the organization, though he did attend its national convention “several times” from 2009 to 2016.
Schwartz told Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., he joined the group “in order to hear a variety of perspectives on important legal issues, delivered by knowledgeable scholars and legal advocates.”
But Schwartz largely dodged most questions senators asked him about the Federalist Society, saying it would be inappropriate or impossible for him to comment on the broad statements of beliefs the society includes on its website.
For example, when Durbin asked him if he agreed with the Federalist Society’s purpose statement on its website that claims law is dominated by “a form of orthodox liberal ideology which advocates a centralized and uniform society,” Schwartz said he was not involved in the statement’s drafting and that he did “not know precisely what it means or whether I agree with the statement.”
Schwartz is currently a partner at the Washington D.C. firm Schaerr Duncan, and previously served as counsel at the Cause of Action Institute, a conservative legal group that says it “creates positive social change with pivotal administrative and judicial victories.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, defended Schwartz’s record, saying that the committee has a long tradition of accepting that attorneys often do not share the personal views of their clients. Grassley also noted that while Schwartz never argued before the Court of Federal Claims, he has worked on cases that touch on issues that the court often hears.
“I believe Mr. Schwartz will display fairness and impartiality in the cases he hears and that his legal experience qualifies him for the job,” Grassley said in a statement. “I’ll be supporting his nomination today.”
In addition to Schwartz, the Judiciary Committee approved Eighth Circuit nominee Ralph Erickson, U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina nominee Donald Coggins Jr., and U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia nominee Dabney Friedrich.
The committee also advanced the nominations of four United States attorneys, one each for the Eastern District of North Carolina, the Eastern District of Arkansas, the Southern District of Indiana and the Northern District of Georgia.
The nominees all now go before the full Senate, which will have to approve them before they can take their new positions.