Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Trump's Lifetime Judge Picks Leave Liberals Dismayed


One are the biggest ways President Trump is leaving his mark by making good on his campaign promise to reshape the federal judiciary.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We confirmed an incredible new Supreme Court justice and more circuit court judges in our first year than any administration in the history of our country, and we have many more coming.

MARTIN: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has this report.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Three months after his inauguration, President Trump welcomed a new, young and conservative lawyer - Neil Gorsuch - onto the Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed Gorsuch on a mostly party-line vote. Lawmakers also approved 12 federal appeals court judges last year. That's never happened. Conservatives like Ed Whelan say they couldn't be happier.

ED WHELAN: So far, his record is outstanding, far better than I think many of us would have expected.

JOHNSON: But Democrats and civil rights advocates find plenty of reasons to be troubled, starting with diversity. Kristine Lucius is vice president at the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights.

KRISTINE LUCIUS: More than 91 percent of them are white. And nearly 77 percent of them are men. You would imagine those numbers in a day where law schools were segregated o law schools didn't admit women, but we have not been in that place for generations.

JOHNSON: Lucius says many of Trump's selections for lifetime federal judge spots are hostile to gay and lesbian rights.

LUCIUS: Initially, I recall thinking that it maybe was a vetting problem, but I've come to believe it's not a bug. It's a feature.

JOHNSON: Conservative Ed Whalen points out Trump's appointees to important appeals courts included three women and two Asian-Americans.

WHELAN: Every president selects, broadly speaking, from his base of supporters. It's not news that President Trump's base of supporters is less diverse racially, ethnically than President Obama's.

JOHNSON: Still, there's a large pool of potential nominees for the Trump administration. White House counsel Don McGahn told The Federalist Society last year about his criteria for the next Supreme Court vacancy.


DON MCGAHN: So what did the judges on the list have in common? Well, they have a demonstrated commitment to originalism and textualism. They all have paper trails. They all are sitting judges. There is nothing unknown about them. What you see is what you get.

JOHNSON: But the last year hasn't been entirely smooth sailing for candidates on some of the lower courts.


RAY SUAREZ, BYLINE: This week, a man picked by President Trump for a judgeship withdrew his name amid controversy. It's the third time in 10 days that's happened.

JOHNSON: First, it was Brett Talley, a Justice Department lawyer. Talley came under scrutiny for failing to disclose his wife worked for the White House counsel and that he'd written blog posts praising an early version of the KKK. Then there was Jeffrey Petersen (ph), a former colleague of McGahn's on the Federal Election Commission. Peterson was attacked by a senator from his own political party, Louisiana's John Neeley Kennedy.


JOHN NEELY KENNEDY: Have you ever tried a jury trial?




KENNEDY: Criminal?




KENNEDY: State or federal court?

PETERSEN: I have not.

JOHNSON: In all, four of Trump's nominees last year were rated not qualified by the American Bar Association. The White House contests those ratings. But Kristine Lucius of the Leadership Conference says she's worried.

LUCIUS: These nominees, many of whom are in their 30s and 40s, will serve for four decades or more. So this is something that needs to be taken more seriously and done more carefully.

JOHNSON: There's no sign of a slowdown. This week, the Judiciary Committee advanced 17 nominees. Conservatives say there's a good reason the White House and the Senate are rushing to confirm as many judges as they can. If the Senate changes hands after the November elections, President Trump's system for filling court vacancies could come to a screeching halt. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHAKEY GRAVES' "IF NOT FOR YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.