Trump picks inexperienced 37-year-old Kentuckian for influential DC court

Justin Walker first became a judge in October

Justin Walker, pictured at his confirmation hearing in July 2019, is the youngest nominee for the D.C. Circuit court in a generation. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Justin Walker, pictured at his confirmation hearing in July 2019, is the youngest nominee for the D.C. Circuit court in a generation. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 3, 2020 at 11:43am

President Donald Trump on Friday announced he would pick a young and inexperienced judge from Kentucky for an open seat on the influential federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., that decides some of the nation’s most important regulatory and constitutional cases.

Justin Walker, 37, of Louisville became a judge in October, when the Senate voted 50-41 to confirm him to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky.

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Now, six months later, Trump has nominated Walker to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The court hears cases of national importance on environmental, labor, immigration and other policy issues; it has been known as a steppingstone to a seat on the Supreme Court.

He is the youngest nominee to the D.C. Circuit in a generation, said Mike Davis, the founder and president of The Article III Project, which works to support the confirmation of Trump’s judicial picks.

Walker would fill a seat left vacant by Judge Thomas Griffith, a George W. Bush nominee appointed in 2005 who announced he will retire in September. The move gave Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the time to fill the vacancy before the end of Trump’s term in the White House.

The nomination will launch a fierce confirmation battle not only because of the importance of the court but also Walker’s background. McConnell calls Walker a “leading light in a new generation of federal judges,” while Democrats say Walker has no courtroom experience and far-right-wing views on healthcare, civil rights and the power of the executive branch.

Since Republicans hold a 53-seat majority, enough to overcome any effort to block a confirmation vote on the Senate floor, the Democratic caucus will need the help of some Republican senators to stop Walker’s appointment. That seems unlikely to happen.

McConnell has made a priority of the confirmation of Trump’s judicial picks, particularly those to the nation’s appeals courts that have the final say in all federal cases other than the several dozen the Supreme Court agrees to decide each year.

“I am proud that President Trump’s search took him outside the Beltway and into the Bluegrass,” McConnell said in a news release. “He has chosen a rising Kentucky star, born and raised in Louisville, to refresh the second-most-important federal court in the country.”

McConnell, who reportedly also has been encouraging federal judges thinking about stepping down to do so soon, pointed out that Walker graduated from Harvard Law School and was a clerk for now-retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and then-D.C. Circuit Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, who is now one of Trump’s two Supreme Court appointments.

“I have been honored to partner with the President as we work to strengthen the federal judiciary with impressive men and women who understand that the job of a judge is to apply our laws and Constitution as they are actually written,” McConnell said.

Before the October confirmation vote for Walker to become a federal judge in Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., pointed out that Walker was less than 10 years out of law school, had never tried a case, never served as co-counsel and got a rare “not qualified” rating from the American Bar Association.

Schumer called Walker “part of a well-established pattern of Republicans stacking the federal bench with manifestly unqualified judges.”

And Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said the ABA determined that with Walker “it was challenging to determine how much of his 10 years since graduation from law school has been spent in the practice of law.” Durbin also pointed out that Walker’s nomination leapfrogged those of other judicial appointments and was rushed to the floor.

Before taking the bench, Walker focused on commercial and appellate litigation as a partner at the Dinsmore & Shohl law firm in Louisville and was a law professor at University of Louisville. He also served as a speechwriter for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2005 and 2006.

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