WASHINGTON — Fresh from handing President Trump a victory in his impeachment trial, the U.S. Senate has moved to install federal judges who have expressed disdain for the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 law that struck down rules across the South that kept African-Americans from the ballot box.
Overturning voting-rights protections tends to benefit Republicans, who have said states, not the federal government, should decide the particulars of how elections are conducted. Some scholars even believe that weakening the Voting Rights Act ahead of the 2016 election helped Trump win the presidency.
The first of those nominees, Andrew L. Brasher, 38, was formerly the solicitor general of Alabama, a position that allowed him to stake out conservative stances on issues from gun control to reproductive rights. He was confirmed to an Alabama district court last year and, in a rapid elevation, was nominated only months later for a seat on the 11th Circuit court of appeals, which is based in Atlanta. Despite intense opposition by progressive groups, Brasher was confirmed by the full Senate on Feb. 11 in a 52-43 vote.
He is the 188th judge confirmed during Trump’s time in the White House.
The other nominee is Cory Wilson, 49, a former Mississippi politician who is now a state appellate judge there. He is currently being considered for a Mississippi federal district judgeship and is expected to face a full Senate vote sometime in March.
The nominations were “an opening salvo to 2020,” and not a welcome one at that, said Lena Zwarensteyn, an expert on the judiciary at the progressive Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. She worried that these two jurists, and others, were advancing “really extreme arguments when it comes to voting rights.”
Conservatives argue that it is unfair to characterize judges like Brasher for work they did on behalf of constituents they were required to defend in court. “When lawyers take litigating positions on behalf of their clients, they’re doing their jobs,” says Mike Davis, whose Article 3 Project advocates for a conservative judiciary.
Democrats, he warned, “need to remember that Eric Holder provided free legal services to suspected terrorists.” The reference is to pro bono work by Holder’s firm, Covington and Burling, on behalf of suspected jihadists detained at Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. Holder served as U.S. attorney general for former President Barack Obama.
Brasher’s confirmation means that half of the judges on the 11th Circuit are now Trump nominees. None of those judges is African-American, though there are nearly 8 million African-Americans living in the three states it covers.
Wilson, meanwhile, would be seated in the Southern District of Mississippi, which is part of the Fifth Circuit along with Texas and Louisiana. Of the five Trump appointees to the Fifth Circuit, four have been white men.
Trump has remade federal courts all across the country, but those changes could be especially consequential in the Deep South, where judges helped keep segregation in place, but then later struck segregation down during the civil rights era. Many decades since then, courts have continued to struggle with race, in particular regarding the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave the federal government great powers to supervise elections in Southern states that had previously kept African-Americans from voting.
Fairness of elections was also at the heart of Democrats’ argument about the just-concluded impeachment inquiry. Trump was accused of pressuring the Ukrainian government to open investigations that would benefit him domestically, but he was acquitted by a Republican-controlled Senate.
“Senate Republicans are trying to rig the election at every turn,” Nan Aron of progressive organization Alliance for Justice told Yahoo News.
“After giving Trump a pass on withholding foreign aid in exchange for interference in the election, they immediately returned to confirming nominees with terrible records, including on voting rights,” she added.