Texas nominees for ‘outrageous’ judge vacancies get Senate hearing

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday considered the nominations of five judicial nominees for Texas, including three for the Northern District, in a move designed to fill the large number of vacancies for judges in the Lone Star State.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, led the hearing, which was also attended by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. The lawmakers supported the candidates, whom they had vetted through a committee they formed several years ago to review Texas judicial nominations. The president nominates the judges to the lifetime appointments, which must be approved by the Senate. The five Texas candidates to be federal judges were nominated March 15.

“Each of these nominees meet these exacting standards: They bring to the bench decades of public service and private-sector experience in civil and criminal law, in the courtroom and in our appellate courts,” said Cornyn. “And together they represent the richness and diversity that makes Texas so proud.”

Two of the five nominees represent minority groups: U.S. Magistrate Judge Irma Carrillo Ramirez, nominated for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District, is Latina, and Karen Gren Scholer, an attorney and former state district judge nominated to be a judge for the Eastern District, is Asian Pacific American.

The hearing had a personal touch: The nominees introduced their family members, some of whom were present and some of whom were watching the committee’s video stream. “My mom, at 87, is watching her first podcast,” Scholer said.

Cornyn, who is the Senate majority whip, alluded in the hearing to the urgency of filling judicial nominations in Texas: “I know it’s rare to hold a nominations hearing this late in a presidential election year.”

Cornyn, addressing the five nominees, said, “ I feel like I know everyone well.”

He noted that four of the five nominees are already judges and “judges are not politicians” who shape laws. “We were asked to ratify that you are a person of that type and integrity that will be governed not by your preferences but by the law,” he said, asking for their comments. All said they would abide by the law as it was written and had been interpreted by the courts.

After he left the hearing, leaving Cruz to preside for the last few minutes, Cornyn told McClatchy that having a hearing so close to an election is “almost unheard-of.” “We do need to have judges confirmed,” he said. “There’s definitely a need. I’m glad this day has arrived.”

Cornyn anticipates that the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on the nominees in the next two weeks, and he hopes that the full Senate will vote shortly thereafter, before Congress recesses for the elections. The chairman of the panel, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, attended the hearing.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who monitors judicial vacancies, said in an interview that the situation in Texas was “outrageous” with 12 vacancies – 10 for the District Court and two for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals – making it “the epicenter of the judicial vacancy crisis.”

In a statement, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking member of the panel, who did not attend the hearing but supports the nominees, said, “More than one-third of all judicial emergency vacancies are in Texas.”

Cruz, who is a former Texas solicitor general, questioned the nominees about a number of legal issues, such as their posture on judicial activism and adhering to the Constitution as written by the framers. All said they would abide by existing law and not try to make law.

Cruz said the bipartisan federal judicial advisory committee he and Cornyn had created resulted in local officials and legal experts making recommendations for the bench. “Each of the five nominees who is sitting before us is a product of that process,” he said.

The three other nominees to be federal judges in Texas are Judge Walter David Counts III, who is a U.S. magistrate judge, for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas; Judge E. Scott Frost, who is also a U.S. magistrate judge, for the U. S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas; and James Wesley Hendrix, assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District, for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.