WASHINGTON — It was a showcase of Texas’ new generation of conservative judges: Seventeen U.S. district and three federal appellate court judges appointed by President Donald Trump gathered in December and posed in their judicial robes with their sponsors, U.S. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
It was a milestone, too: the Trump imprint on the Texas judicial landscape is now nearly complete with the last vacancy — a district judgeship in Corpus Christi — expected to be filled soon. Houston lawyer Drew Tipton, the nominee for the post, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and will be voted on soon by the panel and then by the Senate for the lifetime appointment.
The December gathering was held at the Dallas home of James Ho, appointed by Trump to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The remarkable speed in filling the vacancies – which were labeled “judicial emergencies” by the U.S. court system – reflects the priority that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has put on placing conservative jurists in the courts by changing Senate procedures to quicken the process.
And Texas has been at the forefront of the effort.
“It’s rare to have that many openings and fill them so quickly,” said Carl Tobias, professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, who is an expert on judicial vacancies.
Texas was among the states with the most judicial vacancies when Trump took office.
Civil cases had languished with backlogs, he said, and the influx of judges will mean speedier trials. “People will have their day in court, and that’s good,” Tobias said.
In 2019, annual pay for circuit court judges was $223,700 and annual pay for district judges was $210,900.
“Now that the courts are fully staffed, you’ll see cases move more quickly and see justice done more efficiently,” said Cornyn, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which approves federal judicial nominees before sending them to the Senate for confirmation. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Filling the vacancies “did not seem to be a priority of the Obama administration,” Cornyn said — although Democrats have accused GOP senators, who took control in the last two years of Obama’s presidency, of delaying judicial nominations.
These are ultra-conservative jurists with records that erode critical rights and liberties.Daniel Golderberg
Cornyn and Cruz reviewed the nominations vetted by a bipartisan panel they formed in the state before recommending them to the White House.
However, the profile of the judges — most are white and conservative — and their records have drawn considerable criticism from activist groups as well as Senate Democrats and, in a few cases, even a few Senate Republicans.
“These are ultra-conservative jurists with records that erode critical rights and liberties,” said Daniel Goldberg, legal director of the Alliance for Justice, a nonprofit, nonpartisan civil rights group. “The result will be, for the next generation, real harm to the state of Texas.”
Three nominees have generated the most opposition:
‒ Matthew Kacsmaryk, 43, was confirmed 52-46 in June to be a district judge in Amarillo, with Democrats and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, voting against him. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Kacsmaryk “demonstrated a hostility to the LGBTQ community bordering on paranoia.”
‒ Michael Truncale, 63, a GOP congressional candidate in 2012 in a Southeast Texas district, was confirmed in May to be a district judge in Beaumont. The Senate vote was 49-46 with Mitt Romney, R-Utah, voting with Democrats after he rejected Truncale’s explanation for calling former President Barack Obama “an un-American impostor.” Truncale told the Senate Judiciary Committee he was frustrated “by what I perceived as a lack of overt patriotism” by Obama. Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, told Politico he could not support such “disparaging remarks” from a prospective federal judge.
‒ Ada Brown, 45, was confirmed in September 80-13 to be a district judge in Dallas. A former justice of the Texas 5th Court of Appeals, Brown came under sharp questioning during her confirmation hearing when she would not agree that the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which made access to education equal for all races, was correctly decided. Trump administration officials had instructed nominees not to endorse any Supreme Court decision, although a few have spoken out in favor of the Brown decision, including Tipton. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a former state attorney general and a member of the Judiciary Committee, is concerned that a conservative turn of the courts could undo hard-won rights. He pressed Ada Brown and other nominees on the Brown decision and makes it a point to ask about it. He voted against her.
Another nominee, Jeff Mateer, first attorney general of Texas, was withdrawn in December 2017 from Senate consideration for a district judgeship after remarks he’d made about transgender children being part of “Satan’s plan” surfaced.