The Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing Wednesday turned into a greatest-hits playlist of American political controversies, with lawmakers invoking the coronavirus pandemic, the Affordable Care Act, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and Watergate.
Justin Walker’s nomination hearing to sit on the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals touched on all of these and more as Democrats sought to undermine the Kentucky judge’s impartiality and Republicans played up his qualifications to sit on the second-highest court in the land.
“Well Judge, you’ve become quite the grounding wire,” Sen. John Kennedy said at the hearing as Walker chuckled. “Politics is unforgiving. I suspect you have figured that out by now. … I think you’ve been accused of everything except hating golden retrievers.”
It was, in the words of Sen. Ted Cruz, “the largest judicial confirmation hearing we’ve ever had” as senators took up their posts in a more cavernous room than usual to allow for physical distancing between lawmakers. It was also larger in terms of stakes, with Walker, 37, filling one of the few appellate vacancies available to President Trump and Senate Republicans before the November election.
“It’s not surprising to see a Trump nominee, especially to the D.C. Circuit, which is the most prestigious appellate court, get the full partisan attacks,” Carrie Severino, the president of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, said in an interview.
Senators used their precious time allotted for quizzing Walker to instead debate the wisdom of holding a hearing in the first place. Democrats argued that the danger of convening in person outweighed the urgency of holding a nomination hearing for a vacancy coming due in September.
“It’s just simply inappropriate on all counts,” said former Sen. Russ Feingold, the president of the American Constitution Society. “This is not the highest priority for this country at this time. It’s unfair. It’s taking advantage of a catastrophe to try to further pack the courts.”
Republicans defended the Senate’s advice-and-consent responsibilities as essential work akin to that of grocery-store clerks and first responders.
Republicans questioned Walker’s views on the separation of powers and constitutional law. Sen. Chris Coons highlighted the former professor’s past statements questioning the political independence of the FBI and about Nixon White House lawyer John Dean to examine his “oversweeping” views of executive power.
But Democrats’ main warning was that Walker would, if given the chance, overturn the Affordable Care Act, noting that the nominee had questioned the constitutionality of the landmark health care law.
To punctuate the point, Sen. Richard Blumenthal pulled out a poster of a constituent named Conner, a 9-year-old with a preexisting condition, to represent those who would be “directly impacted” if the law was struck down without a replacement.
“If confirmed, it will be very clear for the public to see which senators are on the side of preserving health care and which ones aren’t,” Nan Aron, president of the progressive Alliance for Justice, told National Journal. “To us, this is the ACA repeal vote of 2020.”