Trump’s 200th Judge Will Mean Decades of Fighting for Our Rights

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Analysis Law and Policy

Trump’s 200th Judge Will Mean Decades of Fighting for Our Rights

Lisa Needham

It took President Donald Trump less than four years to take over the federal courts. It will take us a lifetime to undo the damage.

Each month, Rewire.News is examining the Trump judges behind some of the worst decisions in recent weeks. Read our previous columns here.

President Donald Trump got his 200th federal judge confirmed to a lifetime appointment Wednesday afternoon.

It’s been an unbelievable run.

During a typical presidency—one where there isn’t someone like U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) ramming unqualified judge after unqualified judge through the nomination process—you could expect around 30 fewer confirmations. But one in four circuit court judges is now a Trump judge. The circuit courts are the federal appellate courts—the second-highest courts in the land. Those judgeships have always been pretty blindingly white, but Trump has nominated not a single Black person for those seats.

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That whiteness isn’t limited to the appellate courts. All of Trump’s federal judge picks are substantially whiter than Obama’s appointees, and overwhelmingly male. And what’s perhaps most distressing is Trump’s picks are much younger: Cory Wilson, who was confirmed Wednesday afternoon to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit by a 52-48 vote, is 49. In fact, the Trump administration has bragged about the young judges that have been confirmed—the average age for Trump appointees is ten years younger than that of Obama’s.

A judge like Wilson now has decades to affect the federal appellate courts, so the impact of all these Trump nominations cannot be overstated. There’s legal immunity for killer cops. There’s the state of legal abortion. There’s full LGBTQ equality. There’s immigration.

These are just a handful of critical issues the federal courts will weigh in on in the coming months and years. Thanks to Trump’s success in stacking the courts, the circuit courts will consist of a bunch of Brett Kavanaughs and his fraternity brothers (and very few sorority sisters) deciding if social service agencies can discriminate against queer families or if states can ban abortion before patients even know they’re pregnant.

How does Trump find such dewy-eyed, youthful judicial candidates? In part, it’s because he’s letting the Federalist Society basically pick judges for him, regardless of their experience. Of the 53 judges Trump has put on the appellate courts, all but eight are tied to the Federalist Society, which is basically a breeding ground for lawyers who hate reproductive health freedoms.

It’s also because the administration is willing to give woefully unqualified people lifetime appointments to these seats, so the nominees don’t have to have spent years doing things like “practicing law.”

In fact, the American Bar Association (ABA) has rated nine of Trump’s judicial picks as “not qualified.” By contrast, during Obama’s two terms, the ABA gave exactly zero of his judicial picks that rating.

Consider Jonathan Kobes, now on the bench for the Eighth Circuit. Kobes, who is 45, was only 43 when Trump tapped him for the seat. Kobes was such a weak candidate that the ABA functionally couldn’t evaluate him. They had “difficulty analyzing Mr. Kobes’ professional competence” because he couldn’t even provide the sort of writing samples the ABA would typically review. Kobes gave the ABA some examples, but they said those were “either from Mr. Kobes’ early days as a lawyer, relating to relatively simple criminal law matters, or from his recent legislative work for Senator [Mike] Rounds. None of the writing that we reviewed is reflective of complex legal analysis.”

Ouch.

Of course, Kobes got confirmed anyway, and he’s recently showed us he’s just fine with cops shooting unarmed people in the back.

For a more recent example, there’s Justin Walker, Trump’s 199th confirmed judge; the U.S. Senate confirmed him last week. Walker is the newest member of the D.C. Circuit and he’s only 38 years old, getting the seat after less than nine months on the Western District of Kentucky bench. When he was up for the Kentucky seat, the ABA rated Walker as “not qualified” for several reasons, chief among which was that he basically had no experience as a lawyer. What Walker did have, though, was a ton of experience boosting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings—and that’s what counts these days.

In a typical presidential administration, a crusade so strong it appeared to make someone unable to “exercise dispassionate and unbiased judgment”—which is kind of the whole point of being a judge—would be disqualifying. In Trump’s world, this is a feature, not a bug.

Together, these Trump judges are shifting federal courts rightward at a fast clip. They have no real incentive to behave impartially, as they were chosen precisely for their ability to be partial to a conservative agenda.

Right now, here’s the figure and number you should be most worried about: The former head of the Federalist Society is revving up a dark money group that’s poised to throw at least $10 million at a campaign focusing on judges in the 2020 election.

Liberals need to put the issue of judges front and center for Election Day as well. The effects of the Trump agenda are going to be felt for decades, long after this administration is consigned to the ash heap of history. Clawing back the federal courts, nomination by nomination, is going to be key to pulling us back from the brink of a world where only white straight Christian men have rights.

Trump may end up losing the presidential election in November, but the 200 (and counting) judges he got confirmed to lifetime appointments will outlast the next several elections. Remaking the federal courts must be a top policy priority for progressives and Democrats moving forward. Otherwise, Trump may as well just be in office forever.