It has been widely reported that President Trump is filling federal judicial vacancies at a much faster pace than his predecessors. But the political impact of that pace is blunted by several factors, including the fact that most existing vacancies were created by the retirement of a previous Republican appointee, and the fact that many circuit courts continue to be dominated by Democratic appointees.
Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institution provides an outstanding analysis of the impact of the President’s judicial appointments here. It is highly recommended reading, as is everything Russell writes on this and related issues.
A few quick hits on President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court:
- Predictions are easy to make, and hard to make correctly. If I were better at this, I would have moved to Vegas already.
- Judge Kavanaugh will be subject to the same partisan rancor that has infected our federal judicial nomination process for nearly two decades. But he is surely qualified for the Supreme Court. His dozen years on the D.C. Circuit, as well as his educational and professional background, more than qualify him.
- That said, I firmly believe that the President would have been more politically expedient for the President to nominate Joan Larsen (or one of several other former state supreme court justices) for the seat. Judge Kavanaugh is a “safe” pick in part because he has the profile of a consummate Washington insider. Born and raised in Bethesda, his professional career has primarily been spent within the federal government, and he doesn’t appear to have spent much time at all outside the Beltway. (Yale and two clerkships seem to be the bulk of his non-D.C. experience). President Trump had a real opportunity to woo voters in Middle America with a non-East Coast pick, and there were several highly qualified nominees of that sort on his 25-person short list. It is disappointing that someone with greater familiarity with America beyond the Beltway wasn’t picked.
- In the same vein, and despite Judge Kavanaugh’s credentials, I am also disappointed that another D.C. Circuit judge will populate the Supreme Court. The Court already has three D.C. Circuit alums (Roberts, Thomas, and Ginsburg). The D.C. Circuit is an important court, to be sure, but it hardly needs four justices out of nine with that limited perspective.
- I thought Trump would nominate a woman, if only to create a political advantage over the identity politics-obsessed Democrats in the Senate. The Kavanaugh nomination indicates that Trump was not interested in engaging that dynamic this time around. But it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t revisit it soon. Perhaps he is counting on another vacancy opening in the next two years; if Justice Ginsburg retires, he could nominate a woman (perhaps an even more seasoned Joan Larsen) and really watch the fur fly.
- From the perspective of the courts themselves (and, after all, that’s what this blog is about), the Kavanaugh nomination means more judicial cascades to come. Assuming the nomination is successful, Trump will now have the opportunity to fill Judge Kavanaugh’s D.C. Circuit seat with a (presumably) younger judge of the same qualifications and ideological bent. If he pulls such a judge from the district court ranks, he will have another vacancy for the trial courts as well. Given the record pace with which he is nominating (and the Senate is confirming) federal judges, the courts will have a continued infusion of relatively young (Gen X) judges at all levels.
His letter to the President is here (h/t SCOTUSBlog).
Reaction from Senate Republicans on Senator Jeff Flake’s plan to hold up judicial nominations until Congress acts on tariff and trade issues has been respectful but wary, according to this piece in The Weekly Standard:
Although some of Flake’s colleagues have similar convictions concerning Trump’s use of tariffs, they say they won’t go so far as to block Trump’s appointees.
“I am not holding up judicial nominees for that purpose,” Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey told reporters on Monday night.
Toomey is a co-sponsor of a measure originally introduced by Bob Corker that would subject tariffs imposed under national security claims through Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act to congressional approval. Trump has angered close trading partners (and Republicans on Capitol Hill, for that matter) by using that authority to impose tariffs of 25 percent and 10 percent on foreign steel and aluminum. The White House intends to use it again to impose tariffs of 25 percent on imported automobiles.
Toomey and Flake agree that Trump’s license to implement such duties without congressional approval should be revoked. And Toomey said on Monday night that getting a vote on the trade bill is “very important to me” — but so is confirming Trump’s judicial nominees. And Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson, another co-sponsor of the Corker bill, said that he would love to see Congress reclaim its Article I constitutional authority over tariffs, but that he wasn’t insisting it happen “at exactly this moment in time.”
“I’d prefer he not do it,” Johnson said of Flake’s strategy of targeting Trump’s judicial nominees. “We need to confirm judges.”
Corker himself appeared wary of the notion. “We’re trying to pass the amendment in a normal way,” Corker shouted through the glass of a Senate subway car as the train propelled him away from a gaggle of reporters on Monday night.
Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley said on Monday night that he hadn’t spoken to Flake about the issue. “I’m interested in moving these judges, but I also have respect for what [Flake] wants to do,” Grassley told reporters. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said he would prefer to advance trade legislation through the Finance Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over the issue. Still, Cornyn didn’t appear completely opposed to the concept of curtailing Trump’s ability to unilaterally impose the Section 232 tariffs.
Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), one of the most prominent Republican critics of President Trump, has stated that he “and a few other senators” plan not to vote on any more federal judicial nominations until Congress acts on other issues:
“I do think that unless we can actually do something other than just approving the president’s executive calendar, his nominees, judges, that we have no reason to be there,” Flake said. “So, I think myself and a number of senators, at least a few of us will stand up and say let’s not move any more judges until we get a vote for example on tariffs.”
“The Senate ought to bring legislation to the floor that says hey, we’re going to push back here,” Flake said. “The European Union exporting cars to the U.S. does not represent a national security threat.”
Senator Flake is right about the need for Congress to step up and do its job in a rigorous and thoughtful manner. But it’s a damning indictment of that body that it cannot simultaneously govern the country and approve judicial nominees. Meanwhile, the federal court system continues to operate with many fewer judges than it believes necessary to do its work properly.
The Ontario Judicial Council has issued its disciplinary opinion regarding Justice Bernd Zabel, the Hamilton-based trial judge who wore a red “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” baseball hat into his courtroom on the day after the U.S. presidential election last November. The hat, of course, is associated with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. It is uncontested that Judge Zabel wore the hat into his courtroom, stated “Just in celebration of a historic night in the United States,” and then removed the hat, placing it on the dais with the MAGA phrase visible to all in the courtroom. He presided over about ten matters before taking a recess, at which point he removed the hat from the courtroom. The hat did not return after the recess.
Unsurprisingly, Judge Zabel’s behavior spurred sharp reactions, including 81 formal complaints from a variety of public interest organizations, lawyers, and law professors. (I informally critiqued his actions on this blog as well; see link above.) Interestingly, however, none of the formal complaints came from any lawyers or parties before Judge Zabel that day. Indeed, lawyers in the courtroom that day, and those who have appeared before Judge Zabel in the past, defended his overall judgment and integrity even as they classified the events of that morning to be a professional mistake.
Judge Zabel, too, quickly realized his error. After the Globe and Mail ran a story about the incident two days later, the judge made a public apology in his courtroom. He explained that he was trying to make a humorous gesture, that in retrospect it was entirely inappropriate, and that he sincerely regretted the decision. Later, Judge Zabel sought out private lessons on judicial ethics from another member of the bench.
The judge’s contrition notwithstanding, the Hearing Panel of the Ontario Judicial Council on Monday suspended Judge Zabel for 30 days without pay. This was the most severe sanction they could issue, short of removing the judge from office. In my view, it was too harsh a sanction, supported by surprisingly slipshod reasoning. More below.
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