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 GrahamHillicon Valley: Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse | Trump administration awards tech group contract to build 'virtual' wall | Advocacy groups urge Congress to ban facial recognition technologies Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse The Hill's Campaign Report: The political heavyweights in Tuesday's primary fights 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 SchumerPublic awareness campaigns will protect the public during COVID-19 Republicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday 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 McConnellPublic awareness campaigns will protect the public during COVID-19 Democrats: A moment in history, use it wisely 'Comrade' Trump gets 'endorsement' from Putin in new mock ad by Lincoln Project 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 WhitehouseDemocrat asks Barr to preserve any records tied to environmental hacking probe Democrats warn Biden against releasing SCOTUS list Key Democrat accuses Labor head of 'misleading' testimony on jobless benefits 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 KavanaughMcGrath fends off Booker to win Kentucky Senate primary Trump's mark on federal courts could last decades Supreme Court rules US requirements on overseas NGOs do not violate free speech 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.