As Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in fall 2018 over allegations that he had committed sexual assault against a woman while the two of them were in high school, the hearings served as a proving ground for no fewer than three presidential hopefuls.
But of the trio of Senate Judiciary members who would go on to seek the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota had perhaps the most iconic moment of the proceedings, when the soon-to-be-confirmed Supreme Court justice testily asked if she had ever blacked out from drinking following a series of questions about Kavanaugh’s own habits.
“I have no drinking problem, judge,” Klobuchar, whose father struggled with alcohol abuse, responded with a smile.
Kavanaugh went on to be confirmed by the narrowest margin in U.S. history, but Klobuchar has pointed to that exchange as evidence that she is not to be messed with—and that, as president, she would not be cowed by any of the nearly 200 newly confirmed federal judges nominated under President Donald Trump.
“I want to make it clear that I have opposed many, many judges—and I think everyone will remember what happened at the Kavanaugh hearing when that nominee went after me,” Klobuchar told moderator Judy Woodruff during the last Democratic presidential debate. “I stood my ground and he had to apologize.”
As debate guests applauded, Klobuchar continued, calling herself “very strong on these judges,” and vowed to “immediately start putting judges on the bench to fill vacancies so that we can reverse the horrific nature of these Trump judges.”
That moment—and her tag-team takedown of Pete Buttigieg with Sen. Elizabeth Warren—has helped give Klobuchar’s campaign a much-needed boost in the final weeks before the Iowa caucuses, a state where her campaign recently announced it had doubled the size of her staff.
But Klobuchar, who ran the largest prosecutor’s office in Minnesota before being elected to the Senate, has a more complicated history with the judges she dubbed “horrific” in last month’s debate. Over the course of the 2017-2018 congressional session, Klobuchar voted to confirm nearly two-thirds of Trump’s judicial nominees that came up for a vote, far outpacing every other Democratic senator currently seeking the nomination.
In some cases, Klobuchar was the sole Senate Democrat of the seven who have sought the nomination to vote for the nominee in question. In January 2018, Klobuchar joined just six other Democrats in breaking a party-line vote on the nomination of Judge David Ryan Stras to the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, joining Judiciary Committee Republicans and just one other Democrat to approve the pick.
Stras’ nomination was deeply controversial, as liberal legal groups and advocacy organizations pointed to a longtime history of perceived hostility to LGBT legal rights and an essay in which he described the judicial expansion of abortion rights and school integration as having been accomplished in an effort at “pleasing constituent groups.”
Klobuchar supported Stras’ nomination from the get-go, stating that if he weren’t nominated, he might be replaced with someone even less independent.
“While Justice Stras was not my choice for the 8th Circuit Court, it is my view that he deserves a hearing before the Senate,” Klobuchar said in a statement following his nomination. “This position could simply go to a less independent judge from another 8th Circuit state… since this is not a permanent Minnesota position.”
Once confirmed, Stras ruled as anticipated. In Burka v. Sessions, a case involving an Ethiopian asylum-seeker who feared being returned to her native country following her husband’s disappearance, Stras wrote a majority opinion finding that his court didn’t have jurisdiction to review the findings of an immigration judge asserting that the woman’s husband’s disappearance did not amount to a “new circumstance” under which she could file an asylum claim.
In other cases, Klobuchar has been joined by Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who, like Klobuchar, is running a centrist campaign that emphasizes his cross-aisle appeal. One example is the confirmation of Judge Kurt Damian Engelhardt, who in December 2019 ruled in the majority to declare the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate unconstitutional—putting the legislation in danger of being undone by a Supreme Court ruling.
Klobuchar, who has defended the ACA on the stump, voted to confirm Engelhardt to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in May 2018.
As a result of her outsized support for Trump’s judicial nominees, Demand Justice, gave Klobuchar an “F” rating in its most recent report card for members of the U.S. Senate, noting that she voted to advance Trump’s district court nominees 70 percent of the time, and ranked 31st out of 47 Senate Democrats in voting to advance Trump’s circuit nominees. Only Bennet ranks worse.
Last April, the organization ran an advertisement calling her out explicitly, saying, “If you’re not fighting for our courts, you’re not fighting for us.”
Klobuchar’s campaign told The Daily Beast that the senator’s votes to confirm nominees have dropped in the current congressional term, with Klobuchar voting to confirm less than 40 percent of Trump’s judicial nominees over the course of his entire presidency thus far.
As president, the spokesperson said, she would “prioritize reversing the damage done by Trump-appointed judges by quickly moving to fill vacancies with judges in the vein of Justice Kagan, Justice Sotomayor, and Justice Ginsberg.”
“The fact that Senator Sanders and then-Senator Biden also supported [the other circuit court] judge who wrote the opinion to strike down the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate demonstrates what Senator Klobuchar said on the debate stage: you are not going to agree with every decision a judge makes,” a campaign spokesperson said.