Changing the Refs

The GOP’s Plan to Rule the Courts Until 2050

Trump’s judicial nominees—91% of them white and 81% of them male—are strictly conservative, often underqualified and young, meaning they have decades on the bench ahead of them.


Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

Mitch McConnell says his top goal as Senate leader is to remake the judiciary, a higher priority even than tax reform. He’s off to a terrifying start. Terrifying that is, if you’re not a conservative Republican.

Trump judges are getting rushed through the confirmation process at a record pace, and they’re super conservative on cultural issues, and mostly young. A lifetime appointment for someone in his or her thirties or forties is a gift that keeps on giving for three or four decades.

Brett Talley, a 36-year-old prolific blogger who has never tried a case, is the poster child for Trump’s conservative youth movement. Currently a deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department, he has been active on social media, expressing strongly partisan views about Hillary “Rotten” Clinton, and pledging fealty “financially, politically and intellectually” to the National Rifle Association a month after 20 children were gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved his nomination last week to become a federal district judge in his home state of Alabama. All 11 Republicans backed Talley despite questions about his qualifications and temperament, clearing the way for the full Senate to vote as early as this week despite the American Bar Association (ABA) rating him “not qualified.”

Dianne Feinstein, ranking Democrat on the committee, sought to slow down or possibly derail Talley’s confirmation with the revelation that he had not disclosed a potential conflict of interest on Senate forms. He is married to Ann Donaldson, chief of staff to White House counsel Donald McGahn. She has been interviewed as a witness in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Donald Trump.

“Talley’s nomination shouldn’t be considered by the Senate unless he answers questions about this glaring omission and clarifies matters concerning when he would recuse himself,” Feinstein said in a statement.

Talley is the fourth Trump nominee to receive the “not qualified” rating from the ABA. Conservatives have long derided the organization for its alleged liberal bias, and former President George W. Bush halted the longtime practice of having the ABA vet judicial nominees before they were submitted to Congress.

“The process used to weed these people out,” says Sharon McGowan with Lambda Legal, who served in the Department of Justice’s civil rights division under Obama. “To be qualified by the ABA is a very, very low bar,” she says, pointing out that Jeff Mateer, who said transgender children are evidence of “Satan’s plan,” passed muster with the ABA. He is up for a federal judgeship in Texas.

“To the extent Mateer is qualified tells me how bad Grasz must be,” McGowan told The Daily Beast, referring to Leonard Steven Grasz, nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit and deemed “not qualified” by the ABA. When the group interviewed people in Nebraska’s legal community and asked if he would be guided by the law and not a personal agenda, they found the answers disqualifying.

They heard from his colleagues that Grasz is “gratuitously rude,” and that his involvement in politics makes people who speak out against him fear retribution. He has served as legal counsel in local political campaigns and for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty.

Charles Goodwin, a nominee for the district court in Oklahoma, was the first of the Trump judges deemed not qualified by the ABA. He was also the first nominee since 2006 to receive the extremely rare negative rating. President Obama worked with the ABA to evaluate nominees before he submitted them to Congress, so if anyone fell short, their nomination wouldn’t see the light of day.

Oklahoma senators, both Republicans, are standing by Goodwin, and so far whatever disqualified him in the eyes of the ABA has not made headlines, and there’s no sign it will impede his confirmation.

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Ninety-one of Trump’s nominees so far are white, and 81 percent are male, according to an Associated Press survey. Holly Lou Teeter is one of the women who made Trump’s cut only to receive a “not qualified” from the ABA. Teeter, 37, who graduated from law school in 2006, likely fell short because of her lack of experience but the group’s negative imprimatur is serving only a prod to McConnell and his minions to move faster to confirm her and all the other judges in the pipeline.

“Consider how many Trump actions have or will see time in the courtroom, and you begin to understand why Republicans are rushing to fill these vacancies,” says Feinstein.

Republicans may not control all the levers of power after 2018, so there is an increased sense of urgency to get these judges through and to pack the courts with people more favorable to Trump’s policies. “The Courts keep rebuffing his travel ban, so he’s trying to change the refs,” says McGowan. “We’ve got to stand up and make clear this is about the integrity and credibility of the Judiciary. This is death by a thousand cuts.”