Senate Republicans are pressing forward this week on putting President Donald Trump’s appeals court picks on the bench, with a floor vote Tuesday for the pivotal circuit court in Washington and an upcoming confirmation hearing for a judge that Minnesota Democrat Al Franken has tried to block.
The Senate voted, 50-48, to confirm Gregory Katsas to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which often has the last word on appeals of presidential actions and issues decisions that have a national impact on environmental, energy and regulatory policies.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold confirmation hearings Wednesday for two controversial appeals court nominees at the same time — a procedure Chairman Charles E. Grassley has used this year that Democrats say doesn’t give them enough time to ask questions of each pick.
The hearing will feature David Stras, Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, based in St. Louis. It’s a move that shows Grassley will go forward with Trump’s appeals court picks even when home-state senators have formal objections.
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Republicans know the importance of the appeals courts, especially the D.C. Circuit. In 2013, their filibusters of President Barack Obama’s nominees to what is often called the second-most powerful court in the land prompted Democrats to change Senate rules so that it would take a simple majority — rather than 60 votes — to move to a final confirmation vote for appeals court nominees.
Democrats were powerless to block Katsas without help from Republicans. Ahead of the confirmation vote, Democrats voiced concerns that Katsas’ work as deputy White House counsel for the past 10 months raised issues that he won’t be independent from the Trump administration.
“Unfortunately, Gregory Katsas has been intimately involved in a number of the most partisan and legally dubious executive orders of the current administration,” Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “He appears to be another example of the Republican majority pushing judges from a political extreme of their party as a way of advancing their interests in lieu of a legislative agenda which has floundered.”
Katsas overcame a procedural hurdle Monday in a 52-48 vote. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called him “an impressive individual who is well-qualified to serve on the D.C. Circuit.”
Katsas testified that he worked on issues at the White House that included the immigrant and refugee travel bans, increased protections for religious liberties and an end to an Obama administration immigration program. He told the Judiciary Committee that he would not preside over cases that involved those issues.
Ditching the blue slip
To set the Judiciary hearing for Stras, Grassley had to change his stance on the “blue slip” process for judicial nominees, the somewhat on-again-off-again committee tradition that gives home-state senators the chance to block a confirmation hearing — a de facto veto power over federal court picks.
Franken announced he would not return a blue slip for Stras, a Minnesota Supreme Court justice. In a written statement, he said Stras would be a “deeply conservative jurist” on an already conservative appeals court that covers Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska.
Franken also said the White House did not adequately consult with him on the selection. Grassley said in a floor speech that he looked into the records of consultation, and said the White House “repeatedly” tried to discuss the nomination with the senator.
Senators at the hearing will also question Kyle Duncan, a nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit that covers Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Like many of Trump’s nominees, Duncan has drawn criticism from liberal advocacy groups for past work that they say shows an ideological bent.
“Kyle Duncan is an extreme hardliner when it comes to opposing women’s reproductive rights; one of the highlights of his career so far was his role as lead counsel for Hobby Lobby, in the infamous case that allowed for-profit corporations to deny contraceptive coverage to employees,” Alliance For Justice President Nan Aron said in a written statement.
“Not only that, he’s fought to make it harder for people of color to vote and against rights for LGBTQ people and immigrants,” Aron said.