GOP pushback puts Trump judicial nominee at risk

GOP pushback puts Trump judicial nominee at risk
© Aaron Schwartz

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report MORE’s pick for an influential appeals court seat is facing rare pushback from Republican lawmakers and conservative groups.

Their skepticism is raising questions about whether Judge Halil Suleyman Ozerden, nominated to fill a vacancy on the 5th Circuit, will be confirmed even as GOP leaders say they are moving forward with his nomination.


Senate Republicans have placed a premium on confirming Trump’s nominees to the circuit courts, setting a record for the pace of approving appeals judges during the first two years of his presidency. Judicial nominations are a top priority for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers run into major speed bumps on spending bills Budowsky: Donald, Boris, Bibi — The right in retreat Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet MORE (R-Ky.) because the judges have the final word on hundreds of cases each year.

But GOP senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee are raising red flags over Ozerden because of his dismissal of a case involving ObamaCare’s birth control mandate and questions about his conservative credentials.

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), who went back and forth with Ozerden during last week’s confirmation hearing, said he hadn’t made a decision on how he will vote but thought the nominee did a “good job” fielding questions from senators.

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan NRA says Trump administration memo a 'non-starter' Barr fails to persuade Cruz on expanded background checks MORE (R-Texas) demurred when asked if he would support Ozerden, who is backed by both of his GOP home-state senators and has ties to acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyTrump administration asks Supreme Court to take up challenge to consumer bureau NOAA chief praises agency scientists after statement backing up Trump tweet The Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same MORE.

“I have serious concerns about that nomination, and those concerns were not satisfied at the hearing,” Cruz told The Hill last week.

Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyGOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers to discuss 'future internet regulation' MORE (R-Mo.) said he hasn’t made a decision and wants to sit down with Ozerden.

“I have some more questions to ask him and we’re continuing to review his record very carefully,” Hawley said. “You always want to be very careful, this is a circuit court judgeship we’re talking about.”

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Trump administration floats background check proposal to Senate GOP MORE (R-Texas), a member of the Judiciary Committee and adviser to McConnell, similarly sidestepped, saying he and his staff were “looking into some of the concerns that have been raised.”

Ozerden was grilled at his confirmation hearing by GOP committee members, including Cruz, Kennedy and Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnTaylor Swift 'obsessed' with politics, says she's cautious about celebrity support backfiring for Democrats The evolution of Taylor Swift's political activism Kellyanne Conway responds to Taylor Swift criticism by invoking pop star's lyrics MORE (Tenn.) about how he would interpret statutes and a dismissal of a case brought by a Mississippi diocese challenging ObamaCare’s birth control mandate. He has argued that the case wasn’t ripe.

After questioning by Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeHillicon Valley: Election security looms over funding talks | Antitrust enforcers in turf war | Facebook details new oversight board | Apple fights EU tax bill Antitrust enforcers in turf war over Big Tech Exclusive: Kushner tells GOP it needs to unify behind immigration plan MORE (R-Utah), Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan Overnight Defense: Trump says he has 'many options' on Iran | Hostage negotiator chosen for national security adviser | Senate Dems block funding bill | Documents show Pentagon spent at least 4K at Trump's Scotland resort GOP's Kennedy sends warning shot to Trump nominee Menashi MORE (R-S.C.) quipped, “This reminds me why I don’t want to be a judge.”

Sinking a judicial nominee who has already started the confirmation process is a rarity in the Trump era, when Republicans have viewed the courts as a uniting factor that helps motivate the base, and their best shot at having a long-term influence on the direction of the country.

Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottTo boost minority serving institutions, bipartisan Future Act needs immediate action Cruz to oppose Trump appeals court pick The Hill's Morning Report — The wall problem confronting Dems and the latest on Dorian MORE (R-S.C.) drew fire from conservatives last year for helping spike two nominations — Ryan Bounds to be a circuit judge and Thomas Farr to be a district judge — because of their writings related to race.

But the gathering storm around Ozerden comes after Michigan attorney Michael Bogren withdrew his district court nomination after pushback from conservatives, including Hawley. That fight ruffled feathers within the GOP caucus over concerns about rejecting a nominee because of a position taken on behalf of a client.

However, a significant difference between the two fights is that Bogren came from a state with two Democratic senators. Ozerden would fill a Mississippi seat on the 5th Circuit, meaning Republicans would have to go against GOP Sens. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerHillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Tech giants defend efforts against extremist content The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation MORE (Miss.), an adviser to McConnell, and Cindy Hyde-Smith (Miss.) if they want to dismiss Ozerden.

Both Wicker and Hyde-Smith praised Ozerden when they introduced him at the confirmation hearing.

“I’m glad President Trump has nominated another outstanding judicial candidate,” Wicker said. “And I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure Judge Ozerden is confirmed.”

Concerns from conservative organizations have been brewing around Ozerden for months.

Carrie Severino, the Judicial Crisis Network’s chief counsel and policy director, wrote in a National Review piece last year that Ozerden had not “demonstrated a commitment to textualist methods of statutory interpretation” and that she had some concerns centered around “judicial competence.”

“Mississippi is as red a state as they come. It sure seems like we could do better than Judge Ozerden there,” she added.

The First Liberty Institute, a religious advocacy group, argued that confirming Ozerden would be a “big mistake” and that he’s “not a judicial conservative.” The group added that it did not view Ozerden as “a trustworthy protector of religious liberty.”


Ozerden’s backers have little room for error in their effort to advance his nomination to the Senate floor for a final confirmation vote. Republicans hold a 12-10 majority on the Judiciary Committee, meaning Trump’s pick could need help from Democrats if some GOP senators defect.

Graham brushed off questions about the viability of Ozerden’s nomination, saying he plans to give the nominee a vote.

“I thought he did a good job,” Graham said. “I’d tend to support him.”

No Democrats on the panel have said they would vote in favor of advancing Ozerden’s nomination to the full Senate, where the GOP’s 53-47 majority means Republicans could afford three defections before needing help from Democrats.

But Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinGOP's Kennedy sends warning shot to Trump nominee Menashi Senate Democrats block government spending bill Kavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw MORE (D-Ill.) told The Hill that he hasn’t ruled out supporting Ozerden in committee.

“Although I have some obvious misgivings about his judicial philosophy, I think the criticism from the Judicial Network is totally unfair,” Durbin said.

Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoDemocratic senators introduce bill to block Trump 'public charge' rule Overnight Health Care: Juul's lobbying efforts fall short as Trump moves to ban flavored e-cigarettes | Facebook removes fact check from anti-abortion video after criticism | Poll: Most Democrats want presidential candidate who would build on ObamaCare Lawmakers urge DNC to name Asian American debate moderator MORE (D-Hawaii) highlighted the GOP pushback to Ozerden’s nomination during his hearing last week, saying he seemed “pretty conservative.”

“[But] it’s pretty clear you’re not conservative enough for them,” she added, referring to Republicans on the panel.