Courts & Crime

Conservative group launches big push to get Trump court picks okayed

FILE - In this May 13, 2010 file photo, Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice David Stras speaks in St. Paul, Minn. Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken deny they're blocking the nomination of Stras to a federal post. President Donald Trump nominated Stras in May for the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
FILE - In this May 13, 2010 file photo, Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice David Stras speaks in St. Paul, Minn. Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken deny they're blocking the nomination of Stras to a federal post. President Donald Trump nominated Stras in May for the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. AP

A conservative group that played a key role in placing Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court will launch a big-money effort Monday to get President Donald Trump’s lower court judges confirmed by the Senate.

Concerned Veterans for America, part of the network financed by the industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch, will begin a “Defend the Courts” initiative aimed at engaging its activists at the local level, primarily in states where Democratic senators could block the Trump picks.

The effort comes as Trump and Senate Republicans struggle to win legislative accomplishments.

Getting the confirmations is “one issue that Republicans can all agree on: We need to fill these vacancies,” said Mark Lucas, executive director of the group.

With more than 120 judicial vacancies, Trump has a huge number of federal judgeships to fill, giving Republicans an enormous opportunity to remake the federal courts.

Most prominent are the vacancies on the influential circuit courts of appeal which often set legal precedent and in effect guide federal law in their respective regions unless the Supreme Court steps in.

Concerned Veterans’ efforts includes a new website – www.defendthecourts.org – which the group hopes to use to mobilize its members to lobby lawmakers in states including Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Colorado, where they fear Democratic senators could hold up key nominations.

The group, which claims to have placed more than 350,000 phone calls into Senate offices on Gorsuch’s behalf, this time plans phone banks, ads and mailers in states where Trump nominees are blocked. No dollar figure for the venture was provided, but an official said the group would make a “significant investment” to achieve its goal.

“We’ve seen how important that (judicial) branch is to uphold our policy agenda,” Lucas said. “As veterans we defend and protect the Constitution and for us it made sense (that) we needed to have judges who believe in the Constitution as written.”

In addition to mobilizing activists to back Trump’s judicial nominees, the group is taking aim at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s longstanding “blue slip” tradition.

A state’s two senators give the committee a “blue slip” with their opinion of a nominee. A negative blue slip usually dooms the choice.

The committee’s chairman has traditionally decided how much weight to give the tradition.

“We believe the blue slip should not be an opportunity for any party to obstruct the judicial nominating process,” Lucas said. “Not all Democrats are doing that, but there are some who are trying to take these nominations hostage by utilizing this old, archaic Senate tradition and not judging these folks on their legal qualifications.”

The Alliance for Justice, a liberal group that tracks the federal judicial system, noted that many vacancies are the result of Republicans blocking or slow-walking President Barack Obama’s nominees. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to hold hearings, let alone a vote, on Obama’s March 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court to replace the late Antonin Scalia. Trump this year nominated Gorsuch to fill the vacancy.

“It’s very, very rich that Republicans now are crying foul when Democrats are insisting that they’re entitled to the same rights Republicans had,” said Daniel Goldberg, the group’s legal director.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has said he plans to usually adhere to the blue slip policy for lower court nominees, but suggested that he could call for a committee vote for circuit court judges, even if the home-state senators object.

“The blue slip is more respected for district court judges historically,” Grassley said in a May interview on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers. Circuit court nominees, he added, are “much more a White House decision.”

The committee’s top Democrat last month warned against disregarding the discretion given the home state senators, noting it’s been a Senate tradition since 1917.

“The blue slip is the one opportunity that home-state senators have to weigh in on judges that will serve their constituents and it has always been taken seriously,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who said blue slips were honored during President Barack Obama’s tenure, even when Republicans did not return slips for more than two years.

“No Democratic senator has said that he or she will reject all Trump judicial nominees,” Feinstein said. “Rather, they will review nominees on a case-by-case basis. This effort isn’t a response to obstruction – there’s been no obstruction. This is about giving conservative outside groups the ability to hand pick judges.”

Concerned Veterans has already has already run online ads in North Dakota and Michigan, targeting the state’s Democratic senators. The group was allied with the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, which launched a $140,000 ad campaign in Michigan in June, accusing Michigan Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters of “partisan politics” for failing to return blue slips for Trump’s choice of Joan Larsen for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

Both senators earlier this month returned their blue slips.

The veterans group’s other targets could include Minnesota’s two Democratic senators, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, who have yet to return blue slips for David Stras, Trump’s choice for a vacancy on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Klobuchar told Minnesota Public Radio on Thursday she’s met with Stras once and plans to again, denying suggestions that she is blocking Stras’ nomination.

A spokesman for Franken told reporters that the Democrat was still reviewing Stras’ “lengthy record” before giving his approval. Franken’s office faulted the White House for nominating Stras without first consulting the senators, a traditional courtesy.

“Rather than discuss how senators traditionally approached circuit court vacancies or talk about a range of potential candidates, the White House made clear its intention to nominate Justice Stras from the outset,” spokesman Michael Dale-Stein said.

Other potential targets: Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who has yet to return his blue slip for Stephanos Bibas, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania nominated to the 3rd Circuit and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. who has not signed off on 10th Circuit nominee Allison Eid.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

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