Mitch McConnell’s Pandemic Priority Has Been Clear: Packing the Courts

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Analysis Law and Policy

Mitch McConnell’s Pandemic Priority Has Been Clear: Packing the Courts

Lisa Needham

While Mitch McConnell was busy getting Trump judges approved, the Senate did nothing to protect people from the ravages of a global pandemic.

Check out our Meet the Trump Judges series here.

The United States has been decimated by COVID-19. Over 13 million people in the country have been infected and more than 270,000 are dead. And yet the Republican-controlled Senate has refused to address the crisis. Instead, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has rammed through conservative judge after conservative judge. It’s a move that highlights how McConnell cares only about cementing power, not about helping people.

Since the pandemic took hold in the country in mid-March, the Senate has confirmed 37 of Trump’s judicial nominees. That includes one Supreme Court justice (Amy Coney Barrett), two circuit courts of appeal nominees, 32 district court nominees, a nominee to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and a nominee to the U.S. Court of International Trade. (There are another two circuit courts of appeal nominations pending—Thomas Kirsch II to take Barrett’s now-vacant seat in the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and Raúl M. Arias-Marxuach to the First Circuit.)

While all this happened, the Senate sat on its hands and did nothing to protect people from the ravages of a global pandemic.

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Where the House of Representatives, under Democratic Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, passed a $3 trillion second stimulus bill back in May, Republicans in the Senate have dithered. McConnell offered up a paltry $500 billion bill that didn’t include additional stimulus checks, nor did it offer support to state and local governments.

A while back, McConnell feigned interest in a new stimulus bill, promising that the Senate would take something up in mid-November. That didn’t happen. Finally, at the start of December, McConnell nixed a $908 billion relief package, declaring, oddly, “We just don’t have time to waste time.” That’s rich from someone who has found time to push unqualified judicial pick after unqualified judicial pick through the Senate.

In the meantime, 10 million people are out of work. State and local governments have seen their tax bases decimated thanks to waves of business closures, mass unemployment, and staggering COVID-related costs. Worse, almost all states are unable to engage in deficit spending, unlike the federal government. Federal aid is critical to keep states going, but McConnell doesn’t care.

What he does care about is packing the courts. Quickly. In just one week in September, for example, he pushed through 11 nominees. Since the election? Another seven, so far.

That last part is especially egregious. For over 100 years, the Senate has not taken up new nominations in the lame-duck period between a presidential election and the inauguration of the new president and the seating of the new Congress. But McConnell is committed to getting as many Federalist Society types on the federal bench as he can before Trump’s time runs out.

A lot of these judges, truth be told, aren’t world-beaters. Justin Walker, for example, was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals back in June after just under a year on the district court bench in Kentucky. Walker was declared unqualified for the latter job by the American Bar Association, in part because he’d never tried a single case. He was, though, a McConnell protege who stumped hard for Justice Brett Kavanaugh, his one-time boss, during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings.

Equally unqualified is Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, who is only 33 years old, finished law school eight years ago, and, like Walker, never tried a case as lead counsel—though, she did two whole days of trials when she was a law student, with a professor supervising.

The judicial picks with more legal experience are no better. Take Toby Crouse, who as of November 17 holds a lifetime appointment to the bench in Kansas. Crouse was once the solicitor general of Kansas, so he at least has been in a courtroom, but he’s a hard-right ideologue through and through. He represented Kansas in the state’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to defund Planned Parenthood, using false allegations that Planned Parenthood sold body parts from aborted fetuses. He’s also a voter suppression enthusiast who worked with former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the man who ran Trump’s voter fraud commission.

Or consider David Dugan, who was a member of the anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom, and who believes Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. Dugan now sits on the bench in the Southern District of Illinois. Forever. Also dwelling forever on that same bench is Stephen McGlynn, another anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ hardliner.

All of these picks haven’t just mangled the norms and traditions of the Senate. They deformed the judiciary for a generation to come. This would be terrible in normal times. But in the era of COVID-19, Mitch McConnell spending time imposing Trump’s will rather than helping the country is unforgivable.