WASHINGTON (CN) – Rebuking the American Bar Association’s longstanding role in rating lawyers tapped for federal judgeships, Senate Republicans called the organization a “liberal advocacy group” on Wednesday.
The ABA has rated federal judicial nominees since 1953, conducting interviews with peers and poring over candidates’ legal writings before rating them as either well qualified, qualified or not qualified.
In conducting its evaluations, which are submitted to the U.S. Senate ahead of confirmation hearings, the ABA’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary considers a nominee’s temperament, professional competence and integrity. The process is meant to be impartial and apolitical, according to a handbook summarizing the organization’s process, with ideology and political affiliation not factoring into the rating a nominee receives.
After the ABA issued unanimous not-qualified rankings to two lawyers nominated this year by President Donald Trump, however, Republicans have started to openly question the neutrality of the ratings process.
Democrats objected to the insinuation Wednesday, at a hearing Wednesday of the Senate Judiciary Committee, noting that the group has given positive ratings to the overwhelming majority of Trump’s nominees for federal judgeships.
“If what you are saying is true, out of 53 you would think 49 people would not have been recommended,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Wednesday.
Republicans convened the hearing this afternoon to study a not-qualified rating that the ABA gave last month to Steven Grasz, an attorney whom Trump has tapped for an open seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
A former deputy attorney general of Nebraska, Grasz told the Senate at his nomination hearing last week that one of the ABA evaluators had referred to Republicans and conservatives as “you people,” and “made it very clear” they did not agree with his pro-life positions.
Pamela Bresnahan, the chair of the ABA’s standing committee, countered this testimony Wednesday, saying that the committee based its conclusion on Grasz’s unwillingness to separate his personal opinions from his work as a judge.
“Peer reviews said over and over again, we don’t think he can follow the law,” Bresnahan said.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pressed Bresnahan on how the ABA can be seen as a fair evaluator of judges when it has publicly taken liberal positions on abortion and gun rights.
“The ABA today is an openly liberal advocacy group,” Cruz said. “And it’s entitled to be, we have conservative advocacy groups, we have liberal advocacy groups. Groups are entitled to advocate their political positions. But if an advocacy group is pressing for a specific, desired outcome they should not be treated as a fair or impartial arbiter of merit.”
Cruz likened the ABA’s role in evaluating the judicial choices of a Republican president to Major League Baseball allowing the manager of the Houston Astros to umpire their recent World Series victory.
Bresnahan insisted, however, the standing committee reaches its conclusion based on lengthy interviews with people who know the nominees best. She stood firm in stating the evaluators’ personal convictions do not enter the process.
“We’re not here to become a political arm of anybody, but we do want to have exhaustive peer evaluation and if you choose to ignore it, you can ignore it,” Bresnahan said. “But this is a process that’s gone on for 60 years and we think we get it right most of the time.”
The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote to approve Grasz’s nomination on Thursday. If all Republicans vote for Grasz as expected, he will go before the full Senate for vote that would send him to the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis.
Along with Grasz, the ABA was unanimous in rating Brett Talley, Trump’s nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, not qualified. Talley graduated from law school just 10 years ago and told the committee he has never tried a case.
The Judiciary Committee approved Talley in a party-line vote last week.
In addition to the unanimous ratings of not qualified given to Grasz and Talley, two other Trump nominees received not-qualified ratings from a majority of the ABA’s standing committee.
Holly Lou Teeter, nominated to serve of the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, is the only nominee who received a majority not-qualified rating to earn the support of Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Teeter was just months short of reaching the benchmark the ABA has for the length of time an attorney should be practicing to receive a positive rating.
As Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., explained at a vote on her nomination last week, he and most of other Democrats on the committee agreed to look past the technical requirement after seeing numerous letters of support from Kansas lawyers.
The committee has yet to take any action on U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma nominee Charles Goodwin, the other Trump pick to receive a not-qualified rating from a majority at the ABA.