Trump Nominates Six for Federal Court Seats

WASHINGTON (CN) – President Donald Trump on Friday announced six new judicial nominees, including one to a seat on the Third Circuit. 

U.S. District Judge Peter Phipps, up for a seat on the Third Circuit, will make his second pass through the Senate in a year, having been unanimously confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania in October.

Before taking the bench, Phipps worked in the Justice Department’s Civil Division, becoming a trial attorney in 2003 and taking over as senior trial counsel in 2011.

Phipps’ first trip through the Senate, while relatively uncontroversial, drew interest from conservatives when Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed him on his membership in the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s charitable and social organization.

In questions submitted in writing after his nomination hearing, Senator Kamala Harris, a California Democrat who is running for president, asked about the group’s commitment to defending “the right to life of every human being, from the moment of conception to natural death” and wondered how litigants could “expect a fair hearing” if their case conflicted with the statement.

“I have been a public servant in the Department of Justice for three different administrations and under six different attorneys general,” Phipps responded. “Litigants can rest assured that my adherence to the rule of law is firm and that I will follow the law and not any personal views that I may have.”

Harris also pressed Phipps on his work for the Obama Justice Department defending a federal bar on openly gay people serving in the military. Phipps explained the decision to defend the law came from then-Attorney General Eric Holder after consultation with then-Solicitor General Elena Kagan and the Department of Defense.

Senator Pat Toomey, R-Pa., praised Phipps’ nomination on Friday.

“Judge Phipps will make an outstanding addition to the Third Circuit,” Toomey said in a statement. “He has the experience, intellect and integrity to be a superb circuit court judge.”

Senator Bob Casey, D-Pa., supported Phipps when he was nominated to the district court, but said Friday he would not be supporting his promotion to the circuit court because he does not think “six months on that bench is sufficient experience or preparation.”

“Like justices of the Supreme Court, circuit court judges are often asked to decide questions of law that can have an enormous impact on Americans’ lives, and I have significant concerns about Judge Phipps’ judicial and constitutional philosophy,” Casey said in a statement.

The nomination is likely to set off yet another fight over the Senate tradition known as the blue slip, under which nominations cannot go forward unless both of the nominee’s home state senators consent.

Senator Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee for the first two years of the Trump administration, said he would not allow home state senators to hold up the progress of a circuit court nominee by not returning their blue slip, a policy current Chairman Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has continued.

Both continued to require two blue slips for nominees to federal district courts. 

Trump also tapped two other judges to serve on federal district courts in Pennsylvania.

William Stickman IV is up for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania and currently works as a partner at the Pittsburgh firm Del Sole Cavanaugh Stroyd, where he focuses on commercial litigation.

Trump also chose Jennifer Wilson for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Wilson is a partner at the Duncannon, Pennsylvania firm Philpott Wilson and also worked as an attorney at the Justice Department’s Tax Division.

Wilson clerked for Third Circuit Judge Julio Fuentes and worked as an adjunct professor at Penn State University.

Senator Bob Casey, D-Pa., praised the nominations of Stickman and Wilson.

“Both of these nominees have the qualifications and integrity to serve honorably on the federal bench,” Casey said in a statement Friday.

Outside of Pennsylvania, Trump tapped former Ohio State Solicitor Douglas Cole for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. Now a partner at the Columbus, Ohio firm Organ Cole, Cole counts Uber among his clients and has worked to stop Columbus and Florida’s Hillsborough County from blocking the ride-hailing company’s operations.

Like other Trump nominees who spent time as lawyers in state government, Cole will likely face questions from lawmakers about his work as Ohio’s solicitor general. One case that could draw scrutiny is Ohio’s 2005 Supreme Court challenge to a federal law that prohibits prisons from burdening the religious exercise of their inmates, in which Cole handled oral arguments.

Trump also picked Houston attorney Charles Eskridge III for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Eskridge works as a partner at the Houston firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and is an adjunct professor at the University of Houston Law Center.

Eskridge’s practice focuses on complex commercial litigation and he counts among past clients Lehman Brothers International, which he represented after the financial crisis, and a technology company that was involved in an antitrust dispute with Microsoft.

While Eskridge has worked on behalf of many large companies, he also represented wrongfully convicted death-row inmate Anthony Graves, working pro bono to disbar the prosecutor who withheld evidence and used false testimony as part of the case that landed Graves in prison for 18 years for a crime he did not commit.

Finally, Trump tapped Kea Riggs for a spot on the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico. Riggs is a judge on New Mexico’s Fifth Judicial Circuit, having taken the seat in 2014 after spending time as a U.S. magistrate judge on the court to which she is now nominated.

Riggs has also served as a state prosecutor in New Mexico and worked at the Roswell, New Mexico firm Sanders, Bruin, Coll & Worley.

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