Judicial nominations have been one of McConnell’s top concerns over the course of the Trump administration’s tenure.
As Congress prepares to return to Washington Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s focus is not the coronavirus pandemic that has continued to take lives and decimate the economy. Instead, McConnell has his sights set on pushing through conservative judicial nominees.
Judicial nominations have been one of McConnell’s top concerns over the course of the Trump administration’s tenure, pushing through 192 judges in three years, including two Supreme Court justices and 50 circuit judges. In contrast, the Senate confirmed only 55 circuit judges in all eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. The Kentucky Republican uses judgeships as a strategy to maintain long-term GOP control over the direction of the nation. He told right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt in December that his motto for this year was “leave no vacancy behind.”
The Judiciary Committee could hold a hearing as soon as next Wednesday to consider the nomination of Justin Walker—a protégé of McConnell’s and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh—to the D.C. Circuit Court, second only to the Supreme Court in judicial power and influence.
“We’re gonna honor our Constitutional duty to the American people and conduct critical business, and we’re gonna do it in person,” McConnell said to Brian Kilmeade on Fox News Radio Wednesday.
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When Walker was confirmed in a partisan vote last October to be a judge for the Western District of Kentucky, the American Bar Association rated him “not qualified,” saying that the “Standing Committee believes that Mr. Walker does not presently have the requisite trial or litigation experience or its equivalent” to do the job.
Walker’s powerful backers such as Kavanaugh and McConnell mean the Democrats are gearing up for a hard fight. Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, and if the vote falls along party lines could confirm Walker on their own. But interest groups are pressuring moderate senators and those up for re-election to oppose the nominee.
“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,” wrote Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in a letter to senators.
Democrats are challenging the decision to reconvene next week, saying the main matter at hand should be coronavirus legislation and reviewing the effectiveness of current pandemic-related relief programs.
“We must hold the administration accountable for the mistakes they are making on the small-business program, hospitals, testing and more,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told Democrats on a Tuesday conference call, according to an aide who was present.
Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee wrote to Sen. Lindsey Graham, their chairman, requesting that he delay Walker’s hearing so they could focus on pandemic response.
“Now is not the time to process routine judicial nominations,” the letter said. “There is no urgency to moving lifetime appointments at this juncture. There is, however, considerable urgency — and growing public demand — for oversight of the federal government’s response to Covid-19.”
Even some Republicans are uncomfortable with McConnell’s single-minded focus.
“As much as judges are important, what people want us to be focused on is Covid,” Alaskan Sen. Lisa Murkowski is reported to have said on a conference call with McConnell and other Republicans.
The House of Representatives announced Tuesday that it would not reconvene next week, following recommendations of Congress’ attending physician.