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GOP eyes confirmation hearing next week for controversial Trump circuit court pick

GOP eyes confirmation hearing next week for controversial Trump circuit court pick
© Bonnie Cash

Senate Republicans are eyeing holding a confirmation hearing next week for a controversial circuit court pick, setting off alarm bells among Democrats. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOVERNIGHT ENERGY:  EPA announces new clean air advisors after firing Trump appointees |  Senate confirms Biden pick for No. 2 role at Interior | Watchdog: Bureau of Land Management saw messaging failures, understaffing during pandemic Graham, Whitehouse: Global transition to renewables would help national security Hillicon Valley: Senate unanimously confirms Chris Inglis as first White House cyber czar | Scrutiny mounts on Microsoft's surveillance technology | Senators unveil bill to crack down on cyber criminals MORE (R-S.C.) and GOP senators are discussing scheduling a hearing on May 6 for District Judge Justin Walker's nomination to serve on the D.C. Circuit Court, a Senate aide confirmed to The Hill. 

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are urging Graham to delay the hearing — which would take place two days after the Senate returns from a five-week break — saying the panel should be focused on the coronavirus. 

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"We understand that you intend to hold a nominations hearing on Wednesday, May 6. Given the importance of focusing on the committee's work on responding to the public health and economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, we ask you to delay this hearing until the committee has had the opportunity to address COVID-related issues," Judiciary Committee Democrats wrote in a letter to Graham. 

They added that given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic "now is not the time to process routine judicial nominations" and that the Judiciary Committee should be digging into the needs of law enforcement and safety in prisons that have emerged as COVID-19 hot spots, as well as immigration. 

"Holding a nominations hearing at this point in time is simply unnecessary. Given the Senate’s proposed schedule for the remainder of the 116th Congress, there is ample time to hold a nominations hearing at a later date. Moreover, there is no urgency to moving lifetime appointments at this juncture. There is, however, considerable urgency — and growing public demand — for oversight of the federal government’s response to COVID-19," they added. 

Graham has not yet publicly announced the hearing; committee rules only require him to make an announcement three calendar days in advance. A hearing with Walker would lay the groundwork for the committee to subsequently schedule a vote to send his nomination to the full Senate. 

Spokespeople for Graham didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about the hearing on Walker's nomination. 

The letter from Judiciary Committee Democrats comes after Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerFive takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision Senate confirms Chris Inglis as first White House cyber czar Schumer vows to only pass infrastructure package that is 'a strong, bold climate bill' MORE (D-N.Y.) warned on Tuesday that he thought Republicans were trying to quickly move Walker's nomination. 

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"The rumor is he wants to put a judge on the calendar whose claim to fame seems to be that he worked for [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell shoots down Manchin's voting compromise Environmental groups urge congressional leaders to leave climate provisions in infrastructure package Loeffler meets with McConnell amid speculation of another Senate run MORE (R-Ky.)] as a staffer. ... The ABA [American Bar Association] rated him unqualified," Schumer said during an interview with "Morning Joe." 

Other Democratic senators have also signaled that they expect Republicans to try to quickly move Walker's nomination. 

Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseGraham, Whitehouse: Global transition to renewables would help national security Overnight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 Hillicon Valley: Senate unanimously confirms Chris Inglis as first White House cyber czar | Scrutiny mounts on Microsoft's surveillance technology | Senators unveil bill to crack down on cyber criminals MORE (D-R.I.) sent out a string of tweets about Walker on Tuesday. 

"Priorities? He has no protocol for the Senate operating safely, but is pushing through judges for the big donors who fund the judicial influence machine —and the Republican Party," he added in reference to McConnell.

Both sides are gearing up for a massive fight over Walker's nomination to the D.C. Circuit Court, which is viewed as the second most powerful court in the land behind the Supreme Court. 

Walker was confirmed along party lines in October to be a judge for the Western District of Kentucky. The ABA rated him "not qualified" at the time, saying that the "Standing Committee believes that Mr. Walker does not presently have the requisite trial or litigation experience or its equivalent.”

But Walker has powerful backers including Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughOvernight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 Five takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision Supreme Court upholds ObamaCare in 7-2 ruling MORE, who he previously clerked for, and McConnell, who attended his swearing in ceremony in March.

“Judge Justin Walker, the President’s choice to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, is an outstanding legal scholar and a leading light in a new generation of federal judges," McConnell said earlier this year when Walker was tapped for the D.C. Circuit. 

McConnell has made confirming Trump's judicial picks his top priority since 2017, arguing that they are the party's best shot at having a long-term impact on the direction of the country. Republicans have set a record for the fastest pace of confirmations for influential appeals court judges, and confirmed 193 judicial picks overall. 

McConnell hinted during a recent interview that he was eager to resume the confirmation pipeline once the Senate returned to Washington next week. 

"As soon as we get back in session, we’ll start confirming judges again. We need to have hearings, and we need to confirm judges. ... My motto for the year is leave no vacancy behind. That hasn’t changed. The pandemic will not prevent us from achieving that goal," McConnell told radio host Hugh Hewitt last week. 

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Walker clerked for Kavanaugh, then a D.C. Circuit judge, and former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. He went on to work at two private law firms and teach part-time at the University of Louisville law school.

Democrats nixed the 60-vote filibuster for executive nominations and most court nominations in 2013, meaning they can't stop Republicans, who hold a 53-47 majority, from confirming Walker on their own if GOP senators largely remain united. 

But outside groups are likely to try to pressure moderate senators or those up for reelection in November to oppose Walker. 

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights sent a letter this week to senators urging them to oppose Walker, and to focus on his "zealous opposition to health care access." 

"At this perilous time in our nation’s history, the Senate should maintain a laser focus on efforts to save lives and mitigate the devastating economic impact of COVID-19 on the American people. The Senate should not process judicial nominations – particularly those like Mr. Walker who seek to dismantle health care protections for vulnerable people – until the shock of the pandemic has been diminished," added Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of the group.