Senators Confirm Nine Federal Judges Ahead of Recess

WASHINGTON (CN) – Preparing to leave Washington for a month-long recess, the Senate on Wednesday confirmed nine of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees, including four who will take spots on federal district courts in Texas and two each for courts in Illinois and Pennsylvania.

With the nine confirmations Wednesday, the Republican-controlled Senate has confirmed 13 judges this week, as the chamber confirmed four additional federal district court judges on Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had lined up a package of 19 judicial nominees to be confirmed before the Senate goes on its August recess, which is scheduled to begin at the end of the week, though it is unclear if the Senate will confirm all of those before leaving town.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks to members of the media on Nov. 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Four of the nominees will take seats on courts in Texas, including Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey Brown, who is up for a spot on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

Brown faced questions from Democrats about public comments he made on abortion, gay marriage and other issues.  In 2015, for example, Brown said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which held there is a right to marriage, was an example of when judges “legislate from the bench.”

He also tweeted out dissenting opinions in Roe v. Wade on the anniversary of the landmark abortion rights case’s decision, particularly highlighting Justice Byron White’s line stating that “nothing in the language or history of the Constitution” supported the majority’s holding in the case.

When Democrats pressed him about his decision to tweet out the dissenting opinions, Brown pointed out that in Texas, judges go through partisan elections and he used Twitter “as a political campaign tool.”

He answered similarly when Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., asked him about a comment he made in 2018 when he said the Supreme Court has inappropriately taken on a job setting public policy and accused liberal judges of ignoring the law in order to “enshrine policies” that Democrats could not get passed by winning elections.

“In Texas, judges are selected in partisan elections,” Brown wrote in response to Durbin’s questions submitted after his nomination hearing. “The speech from which that quotation is taken was a political speech to a political audience in the context of a political campaign.”

Brown, who won his seat in the 2018 election with 53.7% of the vote, went on to defend his record on the bench, saying he treats litigants before him fairly.

“Moreover, I have a 17-year record of well-regarded, award-winning judicial service and a well-earned reputation for judging fairly and impartially,” Brown, who was named the 2010 appellate judge of the year by the Texas Association of Civil Trial & Appellate Specialists, wrote. “That record should assure all litigants that, if confirmed, I will be a fair and impartial jurist on the federal bench.”

Brown earned confirmation with a 50-40 vote on Wednesday afternoon.

Similarly drawing opposition stemming from his political campaigns was Jason Pulliam, who will now serve on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. Pulliam currently works at the San Antonio firm Prichard Young, having served as a justice on the Texas Fourth Court of Appeals and as a judge on the Bexar County Court at Law No. 5.

Pulliam also served in the Marine Corps as a judge advocate from 2001 to 2004 and as an associate at the Carlson Law Firm in Killeen, Texas.

The primary opposition from Democrats around Pulliam’s nomination was the endorsement he received in 2016 from the Texas Leadership Institute for Public Advocacy. The group gives out endorsements to political candidates in the state, in part rating candidates based on their views on “non-negotiable intrinsic moral evils,” including abortion, euthanasia, and “acceptance of deviant sexual unions as marriage.”

Pulliam did not initially provide senators with a questionnaire from the group, but turned it over shortly after his nomination hearing in June. The questionnaire did not ask about Pulliam’s views on abortion or any of the other “evils” the group lists on its website, but did ask him about his faith.

He declined to answer several questions about his political views that he said would have violated the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct, though he did tell the group that the Republican Party “best represents my views concerning the role of a judge and the manner in which our laws should be interpreted.”

One of Trump’s few African-American judicial nominees, Pulliam also told the Senate Judiciary Committee his life experience has left him prepared to empathize with the people who come before him in court.

“After my parents divorced, I remember both of them working hard to meet their respective financial obligations,” Pulliam wrote. “Life was incredibly difficult. I have vivid memories of horrible racial encounters as a junior high school student. I have been called every racially insensitive epithet you can imagine.”

Pulliam was confirmed 54-36 on Wednesday.

The other two Texas nominees the Senate confirmed Wednesday will sit on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.

Brantley Starr, who earned confirmation with a 51-39 vote, currently works as the deputy first assistant attorney general in the Texas Attorney General’s Office, having previously spent time as a staff attorney for Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and as an associate at the Austin firm King & Spalding.

Starr also clerked for Trump Fifth Circuit appointee Don Willett on the Texas Supreme Court.

While in state government, Starr helped defend a state voter ID law and worked on the state’s challenge to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era program that gave protection from deportation to people living in the United States illegally who were brought to the country as children.

Like other Trump nominees who faced opposition because of positions they took in court on behalf of a client, Starr said the arguments he made in the cases did not necessarily represent his personal views, but rather were the best he could make on behalf of the state.

Confirmed with a 54-36 vote, Mark Pittman currently serves on the Texas Second Court of Appeals. He previously sat on the 352nd Judicial District Court, worked as a federal prosecutor in Dallas and as an attorney at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and at the Justice Department’s Commercial Litigation Branch.

Pittman wrote the opinion in a case upholding the conviction of a woman who was sentenced to eight years in prison for voting illegally in Dallas County in the 2012 election. The woman had a green card and claimed she did not know she could not vote without being a U.S. citizen.

When asked about the decision, Pittman noted the case before his court was purely procedural, as the opinion found the woman’s attorneys failed to object to a portion of the prosecutor’s closing argument and to the admission of her comments to investigators.

A partner at the Pittsburgh firm Del Sole Cavanaugh Stroyd, William Stickman was confirmed 56-34 to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. He faced opposition from Democrats over past comments on abortion and gay marriage.

In one letter to the editor in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2004, Stickman said the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade caused the “intentional deaths of many millions of babies.”

Stickman also wrote a letter to the editor of the same paper in 2003, when he was a law student at Duquesne University, defending then-Senator Rick Santorum for comparing sex between same-sex couples to incest.

“Are we and the leaders whom we elect no longer allowed to disagree with the activities of certain groups?” Stickman wondered in the letter.

In response to questions about the letter, Stickman said he no longer stands by the comments, though he did note it was not a defense of Santorum’s point, but rather an “inarticulate attempt to weigh in on the topic of free speech and open discussion.”

“Looking back upon it from the distance of time and with the maturity I have developed through my professional experiences as a law clerk and practicing attorney, and personal experiences as a husband, father and community member, I am embarrassed by my letter, especially the strident and insensitive tone,” Stickman wrote to the committee.

The remaining four judges the Senate confirmed were relatively noncontroversial, receiving three no votes between them.

These included Mary Rowland to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and Martha Pacold to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois.

John Younge was unanimously confirmed to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and Karin Immergut, up for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, also received unanimous confirmation.

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