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Grassley under fire for planning vote on 17 judicial nominees

Grassley under fire for planning vote on 17 judicial nominees
© Greg Nash

Judicial and LGBT advocates are slamming Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTrump officials ratchet up drug pricing fight Dems angered by GOP plan to hold judicial hearings in October American Bar Association dropping Kavanaugh review MORE (R-Iowa) for scheduling a vote on a drove of judicial nominees ahead of a possible government shutdown.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is slated to vote Thursday on 17 judicial nominees, who were re-nominated by President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE at the beginning of the month.

Under Senate rules, nominees have to be approved by the full Senate in order to carry over into a new session of Congress.  

But advocates are accusing Grassley of trying to avoid public scrutiny by slipping controversial candidates opposed by Democrats into an already stacked agenda.

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“It is disgraceful that, as the nation teeters on the brink of a government shutdown, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Grassley is forcing a vote on almost two dozen nominees, including a number of highly controversial judicial nominees who are being considered for lifetime appointments to the federal bench,” Sharon McGowan, director of strategy at Lambda Legal, said in a statement.

“It is the height of cynicism for Senators to be forcing a vote on these nominees at a time when millions of families are worrying about essential government services being cut off at the end of this week, and suffering in other ways as a result of Washington’s divisiveness and dysfunction.” 

In a statement, Taylor Foy, a spokesman for the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said the meeting agenda has been in the works for weeks and has nothing to do with the government funding deadline, which is midnight Friday. 

“Furthermore, Senator Grassley does not believe there will be a government shutdown, so any claim that the funding deadline is somehow part of the calculus is totally baseless,” he said.

Opponents of the judicial nominees have narrowed in on David Stras — who was included on Trump’s short list for the Supreme Court — for the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and Stuart Kyle Duncan for the 5th Circuit.

As a private attorney, Duncan defended North Carolina in its fight for a bill banning transgender people from using bathrooms that correspond with their gender identities. In court briefs, Duncan and other attorneys representing state officials argued there’s a lack of “sound science” showing “gender identity discordance is not a delusional state.”

In an interview with The Hill, McGowan said Duncan and Matthew Kacsmaryk, a nominee for a judgeship on the federal district court for the Northern District of Texas, are “cut from the same cloth” as Jeff Mateer and Brett Talley — two nominations that were withdrawn last year.

Mateer, whom Trump had nominated to serve on a district court in Texas, was criticized for having compared homosexuality to bestiality and describing transgender children as a part of “Satan’s plan.”

Talley was tapped to be a federal judge in Alabama, but had never tried a case before in court and was unanimously rated by the American Bar Association as unqualified.

Kacsmaryk was deputy general counsel at First Liberty Institute, a legal group dedicated to fighting for religious liberty.

Judicial advocates have also focused on Thomas Farr, a nominee for a federal district court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, who has been accused of lying to the Judiciary Committee about his involvement in a scheme to intimidate black voters during Jesse Helms’s campaign for a North Carolina Senate seat in 1992.

The Department of Justice alleged in a complaint that the campaign sent more than 100,000 postcards to mainly African-American voters suggesting that they were ineligible to vote and that voting could lead to criminal prosecution for voter fraud.

In a committee questionnaire, Farr said he did not play any role in drafting or sending the cards. 

Civil rights groups, including the NAACP, sent Grassley and ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFeinstein would 'absolutely' reopen Kavanaugh investigation if Dems win Senate Feinstein’s Dem challenger: 'It’s time that we stop biding our time and biting our tongue' The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Health care a top policy message in fall campaigns MORE (D-Calif.) a letter in November calling for a second hearing on Farr. 

Foy said the bulk of these nominees were approved by the committee last year but did not receive full Senate consideration before the session ended.

“It’s typical for the committee to hold a vote at the beginning of a new session on a block of nominees that did not receive a final vote in the previous session,” he said. 

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), whose tough questioning led a judicial nominee to withdraw his nomination last year, called Thursday's meeting "perfunctory." He said these nominees have already had hearings and many have been approved by the committee.

Kennedy said Duncan, in particular, had a long hearing before the committee and he will vote “yes” on his nomination.

When asked by reporters if he would oppose any of the nominees, Kennedy said wasn’t sure.

“I haven’t even looked at the list,” he said.

While re-nominations are common at the start of a new year, Kristine Lucius, a former committee staff director who now serves as executive vice president for policy at The Leadership Conference, said there have been times when a second hearing has been held on a controversial nominee.

But more often, she said, the committee negotiates with its newest members — now Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker holds 'Get Out the Vote' event in South Carolina as presidential speculation builds Senate Dems ask Trump to disclose financial ties to Saudi Arabia Biden: ‘Totally legitimate’ to question age if he runs in 2020 MORE (D-N.J.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisOn The Money: Mnuchin pulls out of Saudi summit | Consumer bureau to probe controversial blog posts on race | Harris proposes new middle-class tax credit Booker holds 'Get Out the Vote' event in South Carolina as presidential speculation builds Harris rolls out bill to create new middle class tax credit MORE (D-Calif.) — on how to proceed, "and the question is, have they had enough time to question any of 17 the judicial nominees or the six executive nominees?"

The committee will also vote Thursday on the nominations of two U.S. Marshall nominees and three assistant attorney generals in the Justice Department, including Eric Dreiband to lead the Civil Rights Division. 

Dreiband, a former counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President George W. Bush, has been overwhelmingly opposed by civil rights groups.