Mitch McConnell’s Protege Inches Closer To A Powerful Court Seat

WASHINGTON ― After a six-week hiatus, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) brought the Senate into session this week without any plans to take legislative action related to the public health and economic devastation from the coronavirus outbreak.

But he got what he wanted on Wednesday: a confirmation hearing for his protege, Justin Walker, who is up for a lifetime seat on the second most powerful court in the nation.

McConnell recommended Walker, 37, to President Donald Trump for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. 

There’s nothing particularly urgent about filling this seat; it’s not even vacant until September. But McConnell is personally invested in Walker’s ascent. 

McConnell has known Walker since he was in high school. He knows Walker’s grandfather, and he recommended him to the White House last year for a seat on a U.S. District Court in Kentucky, at the time calling him “unquestionably the most outstanding nomination that I’ve ever recommended to Presidents to serve on the bench in Kentucky.”

That was a day after the American Bar Association rated Walker “not qualified” for that seat, citing his lack of experience (his resume at the time listed positions as an associate law professor and former law clerk to then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals). But Republicans confirmed him anyway in OctoberSix months later, Walker is getting a promotion, and the ABA says he’s qualified this time.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee wondered aloud why they were there at all, meeting to confirm another judge, when they could be addressing urgent matters related to the pandemic.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the committee has jurisdiction to examine how the November elections will be held amid the pandemic, for example, or the fact that tens of thousands of critical health care workers in the country are immigrants facing an uncertain immigration status.

“Instead, we’re considering the nomination of a 37-year-old family friend of Sen. McConnell’s to the second-highest court in the land,” Durbin grumbled.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) fired back, saying he’s been “amazed” that some Democrats are miffed that they were brought back into session to confirm judges, comparing senators to workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis.

“They think it’s OK for grocery clerks to show up and make sure that we have food on our tables. They think it’s OK for doctors and nurses to show up and tend to the sick in our hospitals and health care facilities. They think it’s OK for police officers to show up,” Cornyn said. “But heaven forbid, the United States Congress show up to do our job.”

Beyond the eerie optics of holding a Senate confirmation hearing in the middle of a pandemic ― the room was barely populated, save for a few mask-wearing attendees, and some senators were asking questions via video conference ― it was a relatively smooth ride for Walker.

Republicans praised his recent ruling denying the Democratic mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, the ability to ban drive-in church services on Easter Sunday to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Democrats took turns grilling him over his past comments critical of the Affordable Care Act.

Walker has come under fire for praising Kavanaugh for having written the “road map” for overturning the Affordable Care Act, and he described the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the law as “indefensible” and “catastrophic.”

“What I think is indefensible is that we are here in the midst of a public health crisis considering the nomination of someone who would dismantle a health care system that is saving lives right now,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “Do you continue to believe those principles?”

Walker said that when he made those comments, he wasn’t a judge yet, and he was talking about the legal analysis in the case, not the merits of the Affordable Care Act itself.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Hum­­­­an Rights — a coalition of more than 200 national civil and human rights organizations, including the NAACP and the Human Rights Campaign — strongly opposes Walker’s nomination, characterizing his record as being “hostile to health care.”

“At this perilous time in our nation’s history, the Senate should maintain a laser focus on efforts to save lives and mitigate the devastating economic impact of COVID-19 on the American people,” reads an April 27 letter to senators. “The Senate should not process judicial nominations — particularly those like Mr. Walker who seek to dismantle health care protections for vulnerable people — until the shock of the pandemic has been diminished.”

But Walker is all but certain to be confirmed, given McConnell’s strong support and Republicans’ control of the Senate.

The next step: The Judiciary Committee will vote whether to send Walker’s nomination to the full Senate. That hearing has not yet been set.

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