McConnell Protégé Moves Toward Confirmation to D.C. Appeals Court
Defying sharp objections from Democrats, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent the nomination of Judge Justin Walker of Kentucky to the floor on Thursday for confirmation to a seat on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The 12-to-10, party-line vote reflected the deep partisan divide over the push by President Trump and Republicans to install young, highly conservative judges on the federal courts under Senate rules that leave Democrats no ability to block them.
Named a district court judge just last year, Judge Walker, 38, is a favorite of Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, who personally lobbied Mr. Trump for the nomination to the court that handles major cases arising from Washington policy and political disputes.
Democrats said the only reasons that Judge Walker, previously a law professor with limited courtroom experience, was in line for such a prestigious position in the federal judiciary were his ties to Mr. McConnell, his conservative ideology and his strong and public criticism of the Affordable Care Act.
“Can anyone here say with a straight face that this 38-year-old individual with no practical courtroom experience and a few months — a few months — on the job as a district court judge in the Commonwealth of Kentucky is the best person for this job?” asked Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois. “He’s not, and we know it.”
He and other Democrats noted that Judge Walker branded as “indefensible” the Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act and said he was being put on the court to overturn the law, which remains a priority of the Trump administration and congressional Republicans despite the pandemic.
Democrats and their allies say Judge Walker is one in a line of Trump judicial nominees who have shown not only open hostility to the Obama-era health insurance law but also an expansive view of executive power. Democrats have similar objections to another Trump court pick, Cory T. Wilson, a 49-year-old Mississippian whose nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is pending.
“We need fair-minded judges who will uphold the Constitution, not partisans like Walker who will do the Republicans’ dirty work for them,” said Nan Aron, the president of the liberal Alliance for Justice.
Though no Republicans on the panel responded to the Democratic criticisms, Judge Walker appears to have unified support from the party, particularly given his status as a protégé of the majority leader. His final confirmation vote is likely to occur quickly.
Judge Walker was initially rated unqualified by the American Bar Association when nominated for the Federal District Court slot based on his lack of trial experience. The organization changed its position when he was put forward for the appeals court, saying his academic background and writing skills were a better fit for that job.
Mr. McConnell has known Judge Walker since the nominee was in high school. Judge Walker served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh when he served on the D.C. appeals court and on the Supreme Court for Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Judge Walker was a regular defender of Justice Kavanaugh during his contentious hearing for the high court — a fact that has also drawn the attention of Democrats.
During the debate over his nomination on Thursday, Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, said he would oppose him and said he was worried that Judge Walker could not separate his political beliefs from his judicial opinions.