WASHINGTON (CN) – The Senate Judiciary Committee approved 11 judicial nominees on Thursday, including one to the Ninth Circuit and one to the Second Circuit.
On a day dominated by debate of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, whose vote the committee delayed by a week as is its custom, the committee made quick work of approving a batch of judicial nominees, most of whom received bipartisan support.
The most controversial circuit court nominee the committee voted on Thursday was Ryan Nelson, an attorney who since 2009 has worked as general counsel at Melaleuca, which sells health supplements and other “wellness” products. Nelson was nominated last year to serve as solicitor for the Department of the Interior, but Democrats blocked him in the Senate and President Donald Trump withdrew the nomination in May.
Nelson faced questions during his nomination process about his views of climate change, having told the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in testimony last year that “the climate is changing and many factors influence that change.” He also expressed support for the Trump administration’s America First Energy Plan, which includes a heavy focus on coal and other fossil fuels.
Nelson has a history of working in environmental law, having served from 2006 to 2008 as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
Nelson told Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., he would be able to fairly evaluate scientific evidence regarding the climate, no matter his own personal views.
“The art of good judging is tethering yourself so closely to the rule of law and the Constitution, including any legal evaluation of scientific evidence in a specific case or controversy, that personal beliefs do not dictate the outcome of any issue or case,” Nelson wrote in response to questions submitted after his nomination hearing.
Senators also pressed Nelson on his work for Melaleuca, which has faced investigation from state regulators and accusations of being a pyramid scheme. Nelson explained he was heavily involved in keeping the company compliant with state and federal laws while working as general counsel and that several state investigations into the company took place years before he went to work there.
He touted his efforts in doubling the size of the company’s compliance department and said he has investigated “hundreds” of the company’s marketing executives, firing some who violated the company’s policies.
“As general counsel, I sought to ensure that Melaleuca’s product offerings enhanced the company’s commitment to provide real products to real customers at competitive prices,” Nelson wrote in response to questions submitted after his nomination hearing.
A member of the conservative Federalist Society, Nelson has also worked in politics, having served on the regulatory policy advisory committee during Mitt Romney’s run for president in 2012 and as a legal advisor on President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign.
Nelson cleared the committee on an 11-10, party-line vote.
U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan, who is up for a seat on the Second Circuit, received significantly more support on Thursday, earning approval in a 17-4 vote.
Sullivan has served on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York since 2007, having previously spent more than a decade as a federal prosecutor in New York City. He also worked as general counsel at Marsh & McLennan Companies, later taking the same position at Marsh Inc.
During his nomination process, Sullivan touted his experience on both sides of the courtroom as providing valuable insight into how to best do the work of a judge, giving him perspective on how criminal trials look through the eyes of family members and defendants.
“From the bench, it is impossible not to see the humanity of the defendant, and it becomes obvious that he is the most important person in the room, always worthy of respect and always entitled to be treated with dignity,” Sullivan wrote. “From the bench, it’s impossible to ignore the family members who are present in the gallery. They too will be affected by this sentencing and they too are worthy of respect and courtesy.”
The other nine judges the committee approved on Thursday are up for seats on federal district courts across the country.
While most received either unanimous or near-unanimous approval from the committee, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri nominee Stephen Clark cleared on a party-line 11-10 vote.
Senators raised red flags about Clark’s views and past advocacy against abortion, citing his work for Lawyers for Life and his comment at a 2016 presentation at Duke University that he has found it “very, very fulfilling and rewarding” to do “pro-life legal work.”
Clark also said in 2016 medical schools that partner with Planned Parenthood are “training the abortionists of the future” and gave a presentation in 2012 that in part encouraged pro-life attorneys to seek to appoint a guardian for fetuses in order to prevent “coerced abortion.”
Clark assured the senators that despite this past advocacy, he would not struggle to set aside his comments and rule impartially. He also said he would be able to apply Roe v. Wade, calling it “binding precedent” of the Supreme Court.
“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 from Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
A longtime private practice attorney, Clark additionally faced questions from senators about his decision to resign from a law firm over his objections to his perception that they were advocating for stem cell research, to which he is opposed.
Clark told Senator Chris Coons, D-Del., during his July nomination hearing that he resigned his position as a shareholder at the St. Louis firm Polsinelli because he believed it was “pressuring” members of the firm to vote for a state constitutional amendment that would have legalized stem cell research.
Referring to a presentation he gave at Duke University in February 2016, Clark explained he resigned from the firm because he thought it had “crossed the line between externally advocating a client’s legal position and internally proselytizing a client’s moral position.”
He disputed Senator Dianne Feinstein’s characterization that he resigned due to conflicts with his personal beliefs, saying he would “faithfully” adhere to the judicial oath requiring him to set aside his own views on the bench.
Of the remaining eight nominees confirmed Thursday, seven would serve on federal courts in New York if confirmed, including Diane Gujarati, Eric Komitee, Rachel Kovner and Gary Brown, who are all up for spots on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
Lewis Liman and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil, meanwhile, would serve on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, while John Sinatra Jr., would take a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York.
The final judge who received approval Thursday was Joshua Wolson, who would sit on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania if confirmed.