Donald Trump’s judicial appointees are a near-uniform trainwreck, underqualified denizens of the hyper-conservative Federalist Society. Unfortunately, they’re going to be around long after Trump departs the White House on January 20, but that’s no reason not to document the top five worst Trump appointees thus far.
Amy Coney Barrett
The newly minted Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett is the worst of the worst. True, she hasn’t had much of an opportunity yet to be awful, but give it time. She was put on the Court to decimate access to abortion, and with over a dozen cases in the pipeline, she’ll get her chance.
Part of what made Barrett so reprehensible was her willingness to flout Senate norms and be rushed into Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s vacant seat. Moreover, let’s not forget her blithe comfort at headlining a White House superspreader event, which should have signaled her willingness to overturn COVID-19 restrictions almost immediately upon taking the bench.
Barrett got a death penalty case right away and (seemingly) joined the conservative majority in lifting a stay of execution so the federal government could murder Orlando Hall. The Court’s order didn’t have a breakdown of who voted how, but if she felt passionately against the death penalty, as her beloved Catholic Church teaches, she could have joined Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan in denying the application.
Roe has collapsed in Texas, and that's just the beginning.
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Barrett is 48 years old and could conceivably be on the Court imposing bad theocratic policies for the next 30 years.
Judge Kyle Duncan of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is the same age as Barrett. Much like Barrett, Duncan was installed on the court to destroy reproductive rights.
Duncan spent two years as general counsel of the Becket Fund, a conservative litigation mill. He helped represent Hobby Lobby in their successful quest to refuse to provide birth control to employees, so it was inevitable he’d get a federal judgeship under Trump.
Duncan got the chance to restrict abortion rights in Texas early in the pandemic. In April 2020, he upheld Texas’ abortion ban, which was ostensibly about conserving hospital beds and specialized personal protective equipment … except abortion clinics didn’t use either of those. Just a couple of weeks later, he upheld it again.
Duncan also wrote a reprehensible screed about a transgender litigant who asked the court to use her proper pronouns. Duncan declared “no authority supports the proposition” that judges should refer to people by their proper pronouns. Things got weirder after that, with Duncan saying if the court was compelled to use a litigant’s proper pronouns, “it could raise delicate questions about judicial impartiality.”
No one except Duncan knows how acknowledging someone’s basic humanity implicates judicial impartiality.
If you took the bigoted views of Kyle Duncan but put them in someone a decade younger with far less legal experience, you get Justin Walker.
Walker clerked for then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh when Kavanaugh was on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and for now-retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. He never really got around to practicing any law, but he did get good at one thing: going on television to defend Kavanaugh during the justice’s confirmation hearings. For that, he got a seat on the federal district court in Kentucky, and then, just a few months later, a slot on the D.C. Circuit.
While on the district court, Walker jumped at the chance to rule for a Louisville anti-LGBTQ photographer who was so afraid she might have to photograph same-sex weddings that she wanted to state on her website she would only photograph opposite-sex nuptials. He also ruled in favor of a church that wanted to flout coronavirus safety precautions because the conservative conception of religious freedom now means the freedom to have superspreader events.
Walker hasn’t had the opportunity to write similarly misguided things on the D.C. bench, having only ascended in September, but give it time.
There are many reasons to be thankful for the 2020 election results, and chief among them should be that Biden winning the election means that Sarah Pitlyk will likely never get to sit on the Supreme Court.
Pitlyk, who was on Trump’s shortlist for Supreme Court picks, is on the federal district court bench in St. Louis. She’s not remotely qualified to be there, having never tried a case, examined a witness, taken a deposition, argued a motion, or picked a jury. She was qualified to be a Trump pick because she hates abortion and has defended six-week bans, fetal tissue disposal laws, and reason bans. She also hates birth control and in vitro fertilization, much like Barrett.
As a district court judge, Pitlyk hasn’t yet had many high-profile cases. However, she’s a judge in a state deeply committed to restricting abortion access. Earlier this year, Missouri had to stop enforcing its admitting privileges law after a similar one from Louisiana was struck down at the Supreme Court. But Supreme Court has an anti-choice supermajority now, and it’s just waiting to be fed another terrible abortion case. Expect Pitlyk to help when she can.
Where a lot of other Trump judges want to make their mark as a culture warrior, Neomi Rao of the D.C. Circuit takes a different approach: going all in for whatever cockamamie executive power theory the Trump administration can concoct.
To be fair, Rao does have impeccable conservative culture warrior credentials that predate her time on the bench. In college, Rao spent her time writing about how women deserved it when they were sexually assaulted or, alternatively, that they were making things up.
While on the appellate bench, Rao asserted in a dissent that presidential power is basically without limits, saying Congress can’t use subpoenas to investigate Trump’s impeachable offenses. She also ordered a lower court judge to toss out Michael Flynn’s prosecution after the Department of Justice decided to drop its case against him. When the full D.C. Circuit reversed that decision, Rao wrote a 30-page dissent complaining that the lower court judge was conducting an “inquisition” by asking the DOJ about its unprecedented reversal from prosecutor of Flynn to champion of Flynn.
It will be interesting to see if Rao retains this expansive view of executive power once President-elect Joe Biden takes office. (Spoiler alert: she won’t).