GOP pushback puts Trump judicial nominee at risk

GOP pushback puts Trump judicial nominee at risk
© Aaron Schwartz

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump administration eyes proposal to block jet engine sales to China: report Trump takes track to open Daytona 500 Brazile 'extremely dismayed' by Bloomberg record 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.

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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 McConnellTrump declares war on hardworking Americans with new budget request The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Health Care: Nevada union won't endorse before caucuses after 'Medicare for All' scrap | McConnell tees up votes on two abortion bills | CDC confirms 15th US coronavirus case 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 CruzCruz 'impresses' his daughter with Chris Evans meeting Three Senate primaries to watch on Super Tuesday The advantage of paying for medical care directly 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 declares war on hardworking Americans with new budget request Scaramucci thanks John Kelly for speaking up against Trump Trump lashes out over Kelly criticism: 'He misses the action' 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 HawleySenate Democrats introduce legislation to change impeachment trial rules Hillicon Valley: DOJ indicts four Chinese military officers over Equifax hack | Amazon seeks Trump deposition in 'war cloud' lawsuit | Inside Trump's budget | Republican proposes FTC overhaul GOP senator proposes overhauling federal agency to confront Big Tech 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 CornynBooker, Cornyn introduce bill to fund school nutrition programs Three Senate primaries to watch on Super Tuesday Democrats seek to drive wedge between Trump, GOP on whistleblowers 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 BlackburnAbortion wars flare up in Congress Hillicon Valley: Judge approves T-Mobile, Sprint merger | FTC to review past Big Tech deals | State officials ask for more cybersecurity help | House nears draft bill on self-driving cars Senate GOP blocks three election security bills 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 LeeThe Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' The 8 Republicans who voted to curb Trump's Iran war powers MORE (R-Utah), Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamUS defense chief says Taliban deal 'looks very promising' but not without risk Lawmakers wary as US on cusp of initial deal with Taliban Graham requests interviews with DOJ, FBI officials as part of probe into Russia investigation 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 ScottGOP senators offering bill to cement business provision in Trump tax law Sunday shows preview: Top tier 2020 Democrats make their case before New Hampshire primary Democrat gives standing ovation to Trump comments on opportunity zones 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 WickerThe Hill's Morning Report - Sanders repeats with NH primary win, but with narrower victory Senators press NCAA on compensation for college athletes Overnight Defense: Inside Trump's 4B Pentagon budget | Highlights include .4B for Space Force, preview of Air Force One paint job | Senate eyes Wednesday debate on Iran war powers | 109 US troops diagnosed with brain injuries from attack 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.”

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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 DurbinThe Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in The Hill's Morning Report - Sanders surge triggers Dem angst As many as eight GOP senators expected to vote to curb Trump's power to attack Iran 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 HironoSenate Dems blast Barr for 'clear violation' of duty in Stone case, urge him to resign What the impeachment vote looked like from inside the chamber Pavlich: The Senate defends its integrity 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.