Stephen Vaden Won’t Be a Fair-Minded Judge


On October 17, 2019, President Trump nominated Stephen A. Vaden to be a Judge of the United States Court of International Trade. If confirmed, he will fill the seat of Delissa A. Ridgway, a Clinton appointee. Alliance for Justice opposes Vaden’s confirmation. Vaden’s record, marked by disenfranchising voters, demoralizing workers, and defending attacks on civil liberties, demonstrates he will be a hyper-partisan, biased jurist, not a fair-minded judge.

In Vaden’s private practice, he made a career for himself defending efforts to make it harder for African Americans to vote:

  • In C. State Conf. of the NAACP v. McCrory, Vaden, on behalf of Republican senators, defended North Carolina’s discriminatory voting laws that included reducing early-voting days, eliminating same-day registration and preregistration of teenage voters, and implementing strict voter photo identification requirements. Thomas Farr, who the Senate refused to confirm to a district court judgeship, led defense of North Carolina. Subtly blaming people of color for their own circumstances, Vaden wrote, “Although members of minority races may disproportionately choose, for socio-economic or other reasons, not to take advantage of this equal opportunity [to vote], North Carolina’s practices are not the proximate cause of this phenomenon.” The Fourth Circuit disagreed, concluding that the laws targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision” in its efforts to deny them the right to vote. His efforts to disenfranchise voters was done often on behalf of the Judicial Education Project, a sister organization of the ultra-conservative Judicial Crisis Network, which has spent millions to hijack the courts with right-wing ideologues.
    • In Ohio, he served as an attorney for the Koch-funded “Buckeye Institute,” a far-right think tank that supported restrictive voting laws in Ohio along with Chad Readler.
    • In Ohio Democratic Party v. Husted, Vaden co-drafted a brief defending the state’s decision to reduce the number of days of early voting. After the 2004 elections in Ohio forced voters to wait in lines that lasted into the early morning of the following day, the Sixth Circuit found many voters to be “effectively disenfranchised.” Accordingly, Ohio adopted a policy to allow a five-day “Golden Week” in which voters could register and vote at the same time before registration closed 30 days before the election. After Republicans in Ohio attempted to eliminate Golden Week in 2014, a district court issued an injunction reinstating it, finding that removing it would disproportionately impact minority voters. The Sixth Circuit, in a divided opinion, reversed the lower court ruling.
  • In Ohio Coalition for the Homeless v. Husted, Vaden supported Ohio laws that required perfectly matched addresses or birthdates on provisional and absentee ballots, reduced the amount of time allowed to address clerical errors before ballots were thrown out, and limited the ways that poll workers could assist voters. As the district court observed, “[t]he history of Ohio’s racially discriminatory voting laws goes back to its founding[,]” citing expert data that minority voters used provisional balloting at higher rates and had their provisional and absentee ballots rejected at higher rates than whites in Ohio elections. The district court found that all three challenged provisions imposed an undue burden on the right to vote and disproportionately impacted minority voters. However, a divided Sixth Circuit panel reversed as to two of the provisions, still finding the “perfection requirement” to be an undue burden on the right to vote but overturning the district court’s determination that the law disproportionately impacted minority voters.
  • In Lee Et. Al. v. Virginia State Board of Elections, Vaden defended Virginia’s voter ID requirement (which was upheld by the Fourth Circuit). According to an expert in the case, approximately 230,000 registered Virginia voters did not possess qualifying IDs.

Vaden, a member of the Federalist Society since 2005, has never tried a case to verdict and was lead attorney in just one case before a court of appeals. As evidenced above, he has devoted his career to advancing Republican Party causes and his client list as a private attorney included Miriam Adelson, wife of GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson; the National Republican Senatorial Committee; and scores of other GOP-leaning PACs according to his financial disclosure forms.

As a reward for his partisanship, Vaden was appointed General Counsel of the Department of Agriculture (USDA). At the Department, Vaden repeatedly attacked the Agency’s workers. One of Vaden’s first acts was to terminate the labor contract between his office and its staff of 250 lawyers and legal professionals. And, Vaden unilaterally rescinded about a dozen worker benefits including, “changes to required work hours that limited flexibility, and the elimination of a promotion structure for new hires.” As Politico noted, “morale among many of the Agriculture Department’s legal staff has plummeted” since Vaden arrived at USDA. His office ranked 254 out of 339 federal agencies on the “best places to work” survey, and morale in the office was described as “abysmal.” When nominated to serve as general counsel, he was opposed by the American Federation of Government Employees.

Once confirmed, Vaden continued his attacks on his Agency’s civil servants. Vaden was involved in USDA’s proposed moving of the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture offices from Washington, DC to Kansas City, Missouri. The move was projected to impact 600 workers. The Department’s Inspector General found this proposal to be illegal because the USDA did not get necessary approval from Congress.

The move was an effort to suppress research and planning on climate change and retribution for issuing reports that did not align with the Trump administration’s agenda. Senator Chris Van Hollen stated, “These decisions… are meant to displace seasoned scientists and regulators who have honorably served Republican and Democratic Administrations alike.” The USDA employees were given one month’s notice to relocate or be terminated. Employees tried to unionize and some ultimately quit. A few that were being treated for severe medical conditions asked for hardship extensions, but those requests were not acted on. Only 60 employees have relocated. The move has caused “significantdelays” in economic research.

At USDA, he prioritized siding with the wealthy and powerful over the protection of public lands. For example, Vaden argued that the Forest Service has statutory authority to grant pipeline rights-of-way through national forests. The pipelines pose a threat to the local ecosystems by endangering rare species, causing habitat destruction and water pollution, and making the area more susceptible to invasive species. In response to questions from Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, he admitted being involved in USDA’s efforts to rescind an Obama order that protected 1 million acres of Forest Service land around the Grand Canyon from mining.

Finally, Vaden defended the torture at Guantanamo Bay saying, “I have yet to hear anyone… describe a coherent alternative.” He also defended John Yoo, the former deputy attorney general who authored of the “torture memos,” and warrantless wiretapping (arguing that “surveillance is not the problem. Political rhetoric stripped of common sense and accountability is”).