Politics & Government

Liberal group goes on offensive against Kentucky judge Trump likes for Supreme Court

Amul Thapar talks with The Associated Press on Thursday, May 18, 2006, in Lexington, Ky.
Amul Thapar talks with The Associated Press on Thursday, May 18, 2006, in Lexington, Ky. AP

A group opposed to President Donald Trump's judicial picks is taking aim at a Kentucky judge who has made the president's short list of potential Supreme Court justices.

Demand Justice has rolled out an ad that seeks to paint Amul Thapar, who was confirmed last year to a seat on the federal appeals bench, as a friend of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a "far right" judge who authored a court decision that would allow wealthy donors to influence elections.

Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the court Wednesday. Within minutes, McConnell announced the Republican-dominated Senate will move quickly on a replacement.

The ad is one of five that the Demand Justice Initiative is running as part of its "Ditch the List" effort timed for the end of the Supreme Court term. The court is expected to end its current term next week amid speculation of a possible retirement.

Demand Justice's targets: Several of the judges on Trump's short list for the court.

"The last person we need on the Supreme Court is a Mitch McConnell crony who will interpret the Constitution with the goal of helping Republicans win elections,” said Brian Fallon, a former press secretary for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and the executive director of Demand Justice.

Fallon called the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which gave corporations and unions the ability to spend unlimited sums on political ads, "one of the worst in recent Supreme Court history" but said Thapar "actually thinks it didn’t go far enough."

Fallon charged "If Thapar were ever picked for the court, his rulings would unleash even more special-interest spending into our elections, drowning out the voices of everyday citizens."

The group criticized Thapar for a 2016 decision where he struck down a prohibition on judges making political contributions. Thapar found that certain restrictions on judicial candidates’ political activities, including campaign contributions, violated their First Amendment rights.

An appellate court later overturned two portions of Thapar’s decision, including one that allowed judges and judicial candidates to contribute to political organizations. It said the restriction served a “compelling interest in preventing the appearance that judicial candidates are no different from other elected officials when it comes to quid pro quo politics.

The ad also notes Thapar’s ties to McConnell, who twice recommended him for positions on the federal bench. The ad also says that Thapar’s wife donated to McConnell soon after the Kentucky Republican helped Thapar secure his judgeship.

Thapar, who was confirmed to a seat on the federal appeals bench in May 2017, was Trump's second judicial selection, after the president nominated Neil Gorsuch for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thapar had been nominated by President George W. Bush in 2007 to be a judge for the Eastern District of Kentucky, where he served for nine and a half years, and was the federal prosecutor for the region before that. Thapar was the first person of South Asian descent to become a federal district judge and the second to become a federal appellate judge.

The district covers the eastern half of Kentucky, including Lexington, Frankfort and Northern Kentucky, where Thapar lived.

The Senate approved Thapar’s nomination to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati on a party-line vote.

The ad includes footage of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who cited Thapar's 2016 ruling on the Senate floor to charge that he would side with the rich and powerful.

McConnell at the time hailed Thapar as a "qualified judge with an impressive legal mind." Thapar is known for handing down conservative rulings, but after his nomination, attorneys across the political spectrum touted his fairness.

Louisville attorney Kent Wicker, a liberal, said at the time that Thapar’s political ideology doesn’t show up in how he handles cases and reaches decisions. “His judicial philosophy is to get the right answer and do the right thing,” Wicker said. “He tries to follow the law.”

Fallon said the group is hoping to show Americans that Trump nominees "would act as reliable rubber stamps for him and his agenda."

Its earlier ads featured Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

The group plans to continue to release ads about Trump’s possible nominees throughout the summer, regardless of whether a Supreme Court vacancy comes open, Fallon said.

McConnell has made confirming Trump-nominated judges a top priority and the Fallon group has pledged to spend six figures to counter Supreme Court selections.

The ads, which are aimed at Democratic-leaning audiences to stir opposition to Trump selections, will run digitally in 10 states, including Missouri and North Carolina, that are home to key senators who could determine the next Supreme Court nominee.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark
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