WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate confirmed a Mississippi appeals court judge and former Republican lawmaker to a seat on the Fifth Circuit Wednesday, marking the 200th judge President Donald Trump has placed on a federal court.
Judge Cory Wilson has served on the Mississippi Court of Appeals since last year, having spent 2016 to 2019 as a Republican in the Mississippi House of Representatives. Before taking the bench, he also held jobs in private practice and other positions in state government, including in the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office.
“Cory Wilson is a highly qualified judge who will be a credit to the nation and to his native Mississippi,” Senator Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, wrote on Twitter after Wilson’s confirmation. “As the 200th confirmed federal judge during the Trump administration, Judge Wilson appropriately represents the generational transformation of our courts.”
Rated well qualified by the American Bar Association, the Yale Law School alumnus faced stiff opposition from Democrats over his record on abortion, health care and voting rights.
With the final steps of Wilson’s confirmation coming amid nationwide protests against racial disparities in policing spurred on by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, his opponents particularly pointed to his past support of voter identification laws and dismissal of concerns that they suppress the vote, especially among minority groups.
In a 2011 article, Wilson dismissed as “poppycock” claims that voter identification laws suppress minority votes and has in the past cited concerns about voter fraud while pushing efforts to enforce voter identification laws and trim voter rolls.
Writing in a 2012 op-ed accusing Democrats of focusing on voting rights to gin up the support of their base, Wilson referred to the ACLU and other groups focused on voting rights as “rent-a-mobs.”
Lena Zwarensteyn, the director of the fair courts campaign at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, noted Wilson will sit on a court that hears cases from diverse states with large minority populations, bringing his record on voting rights to the forefront.
“On that topic alone, it’s really unlikely anyone could enter his courtroom and feel like they will actually be able to receive a fair trial,” Zwarensteyn said in an interview. “I think his work in the secretary of state’s office, certainly also as a state legislator, really does reveal these deeply held beliefs that I don’t think he’d be able to put aside even if he does put on that robe.”
Wilson has defended himself from criticisms of his past political statements and positions by saying his job in office and his job on the bench are completely distinct.
“All those comments you referenced in terms of my writings came at a time before I was ever a judge,” Wilson said at his confirmation hearing in May. “And the role is distinct, it is very different, and my personal views, political views and things have no place in deciding the cases that come before the court.”
Wilson has also publicly criticized the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, as “illegitimate,” and called for the Supreme Court to strike it down. Wilson’s comments on the health care law drew particular scrutiny because a recent challenge to Obamacare that came through the Fifth Circuit is currently before the Supreme Court.
Wilson said if the case were to come back to the appeals court after he takes the bench, he would follow applicable recusal rules, but did not commit to recusal outright.
“Quite frankly, it’s stunning that Republicans, in the middle of a health and economic crisis in this country, in the middle of a pandemic, plus at a time when our country is crying out for racial justice, it’s stunning that they are going to confirm Cory Wilson to a lifetime judgeship,” Daniel Goldberg, legal director at the liberal Alliance for Justice, said in an interview.
Originally tapped for a seat on a federal trial court, Trump chose Wilson for the appeals court seat after his first choice for the position, Judge Sul Ozerden, failed amid conservative opposition in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Wilson is the 200th judge Trump has appointed to federal courts across the country as the White House and Senate Republicans have made judicial nominations a priority during Trump’s presidency. That tally includes two Supreme Court justices and 53 judges on the federal appeals courts.
By comparison, President Barack Obama appointed 30 federal appeals court judges during his first term in office.
Trump has already flipped three appeals courts from having a majority of their bench appointed by Democrats to having a majority appointed by Republicans. Trump trails only President Jimmy Carter in the pace of judicial confirmations, according to a tracker compiled by the Article III Project, which supports the confirmation of Trump’s nominees.
Republicans have hailed the effort to remake the federal bench as an enduring legacy and the culmination of a decades-long conservative legal movement.
“As I’ve said many times … our work with the administration to renew our federal courts is not a partisan or political victory,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor. “It’s a victory for the rule of law and for the Constitution itself.”
Goldberg, whose Alliance for Justice has broadly opposed Trump’s nominees and is working on a campaign to counter the Republican successes when the next Democrat takes the White House, said the boasting from Republicans falls flat for many who view the nominees as fundamentally flawed on issues like civil rights, abortion and the environment.
“It’s no cause for celebration that they have put on the bench so many people who will take our law and our country backwards,” Goldberg said.