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While You’re Watching Impeachment, Mitch McConnell is Packing the Courts With Wingnuts

‘A DANGEROUS DISGRACE’
It’s become standard practice for Trump judicial nominees to decline comment when asked if Brown v Board of Education was correctly decided.

Eleanor CliftDec. 07, 2019 5:02 AM ET

Most voters don’t know that the Trump-tagged “Do Nothing Democrats” have passed 275 bipartisan bills on key issues including climate, gun safety, raising the minimum wage, net neutrality and election security. All are stalled in the Senate where Mitch McConnell controls the spigot of what comes out of the GOP-controlled chamber

Recently, he’s grabbed some low-hanging fruit, like the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act, which passed the House and Senate unanimously. It makes animal cruelty a federal crime punishable by fines and up to seven years in prison. 

McConnell has not been as magnanimous with the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which the House passed in April. It’s collecting dust. Maybe the Republicans fear Joe Biden, its original Senate sponsor, might take a victory lap. Also, the NRA doesn’t like it because it curbs gun ownership among domestic abusers. 

A Retirement Security bill that passed the House 417 to 3 in May continues to languish. It strengthens protections in retirement plans and undoes a provision in the GOP tax bill that unfairly boosts the taxes on survivor benefits for children in Gold Star families. 

So what gives with McConnell? He’s got other priorities, namely meeting the goal that he and Trump set of confirming 182 federal judges by the end of this year. McConnell’s motto: “Leave no vacancy behind.” He is on track to meet the goal, which is twice the number of lifetime judges that President Obama had installed at the same point in his presidency. 

While the media is riveted on the House Judiciary committee, the Senate Judiciary committee is doing what McConnell wants, teeing up a parade of Trump judges that win confirmation with party-line votes on the Senate floor. Senate Republicans on Thursday tweeted the “BIG NEWS,” that they will confirm two more justices next week to the 9th Circuit. They are Patrick Bumatay, 41, a Filipino American who will be the second openly gay judge Trump has named, and Lawrence Van Dyke, 46, who received a majority “not qualified” rating from the American Bar Association. 

Democrats oppose both nominations, but Van Dyke is by far the more controversial. He currently serves as deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, where he is aligned with a climate change denier. He has refused to say that he could be fair and impartial to members of the LGBTQ community. The ABA sent a scathing letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying that based on 60 interviews, Van Dyke “does not have an open mind, and does not always have a commitment to being candid and truthful.” 

These two confirmations bring Trump closer to tipping the famously liberal 9th Circuit, which Trump has called “a big thorn, a dangerous disgrace, and a complete and total disaster.” Ten of the 13 GOP judges on the 29-seat Ninth Circuit are Trump appointees.    

With the exception of Maine Senator Susan Collins, every Republican voted this past week for Sarah Pitlyk, 42, whose extreme opposition to reproductive rights has been the cornerstone of her limited legal career. She is critical of IVF and surrogacy, and believes embryos should not be “killed,” but should have status as human beings under the law. 

She has never tried a case, though she will now have a lifetime seat as a trial judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. The ABA unanimously rated her “not qualified.” 

Democrats are frustrated that they cannot stop the onslaught of conservative judges vetted by the Federalist Society and poised to have an impact on the judiciary for decades to come. “McConnell doesn’t care about passing legislation,” says Lena Zwarensteyn, Fair Courts Campaign director. “He’s  confident he can get the results he wants on health care, immigration, voting rights, educational equity and the rights for people to organize in the workplace by installing judges that will rule in their (GOP’s) favor.” 

Pitlyk is one of nine Trump judicial nominees deemed “not qualified” by the ABA, whose approval was once the basic building block for any nomination. That’s out the window now, along with any fealty to precedent. Nominees are much more open about criticizing landmark decisions such as Roe v Wade, and it’s become standard practice for Trump judicial nominees to decline comment when asked if Brown v Board of Education was correctly decided. 

“These are folks who have really raised their hands to signal how extreme they are,” says Zwarensteyn. 

The confirmation last month of Steven Menashi, a 40-year-old White House lawyer who had circulated an anti-Muslim myth about General Pershing dipping bullets in pig’s blood to put down a Muslim uprising, flipped the New York City-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit to majority Republican-appointed judges, joining the 3rd Circuit and 11th Circuit in erasing any edge Democrats might have had after eight years of Obama. 

The courts are quietly undergoing a massive transformation that Democrats in the Senate are powerless to stop. But the “Do Nothing Democrats” in the House are readying legislation to curb the cost of prescription drugs that should test McConnell’s resolve. 

Named after the late House Oversight Committee chairman, the Elijah Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act would break the stranglehold of Pharma and give Medicare the power to negotiate the price of drugs. “It’s a huge move; it would have a transformational impact on drug prices,” says a senior Democratic aide. “The way the bill is structured, there are penalties for not negotiating that will force drug companies to the table.” 

Asked why McConnell would take this up when he’s let other priorities popular with voters languish, like gun safety legislation, the aide responded, “It crosses party lines in a way that other issues don’t.” Unlike the gun issue, which has powerful support from the NRA, “There isn’t a constituency out in America that favors astronomical drug prices,” the aide explained. “I think it will be very difficult for him to stand against it.” 

It’s not just McConnell, the aide says, the legislation creates a box for Trump. The high cost of prescription drugs is the No. 1 issue for voters. Trump has pledged to do something about it and has boasted about taking on pharma. He even floated the idea that the pharmaceutical companies could be helping push impeachment because they know he wants to lower drug prices. He didn’t offer any evidence, but maybe, just maybe, this is the kind of fight he would like in an election year.  

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