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Opinion: Trump's Painfully Unqualified Judicial Nominee Was The Tip Of The Iceberg

In an effort to stack federal courts with right-wing judges, the Trump administration has nominated a slew of terrible candidates.

Posted on December 22, 2017, at 3:06 p.m. ET

The withdrawals of three of President Trump’s most troubling judicial nominees — Matthew Petersen, Brett Talley, and Jeffrey Mateer — are an encouraging sign that even the rubber-stamping Senate Republicans have reached a breaking point.

But those three are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more disturbingly unqualified Trump nominees, and it should not take a humiliating hearing, a serial lack of disclosures to the Senate, or video footage of a nominee calling transgender children part of “Satan’s plan,” to derail a nomination. None of these men should have survived vetting by the administration, but with the administration asleep at the wheel, the Senate needs to set a higher bar.

The nonpartisan American Bar Association rarely gives a judicial nominee its lowest rating of “not qualified,” and when it does so, it is a clear sign that that person is deeply flawed and should not be confirmed. The ABA has already given this rare "not qualified" rating to four of Trump’s candidates, and two of them — Holly Teeter and Charles Goodwin — remain pending as nominees. They should withdraw, and if they don’t, the Senate should not confirm them.

Based on many interviews with local attorneys who have observed him, Charles Goodwin lacks the basic work ethic needed to serve as a district judge. “Magistrate Judge Goodwin’s work habits, including his frequent absence from the courthouse until mid-afternoon, raised doubt,” the ABA said in its evaluation of him. “Inaccessibility issues generated concerns about the timely and efficient administration of justice.”

Holly Teeter lacks the minimal requirement of professional experience to serve as a federal district court judge. The ABA interviewed dozens of lawyers and judges about Teeter and concluded that she “does not presently have the requisite trial experience or its equivalent.” In her Senate questionnaire, Teeter revealed that she has not even participated in a single trial.

As Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy said in criticizing Matthew Petersen, “just because you’ve seen My Cousin Vinny doesn’t qualify you to be a federal judge.”

Two other Trump nominees — Stephen Schwartz and Ryan Holte — also lack the minimal experience necessary to serve. They would have received ABA ratings of "not qualified," but the ABA does not evaluate nominees to the US Court of Federal Claims, a trial court with nationwide jurisdiction. If confirmed, they will serve 15-year terms and can continue on the court as senior judges after that.

Schwartz and Holte are both 34 years old and graduated from law school in 2008, just nine years ago — well below the ABA minimum practice requirement of 12 years. Both lack trial experience. In his Senate questionnaire, Holte conceded: “I have not tried a case.” In his answers to written questions from senators, Schwartz also revealed a dearth of trial experience, and he further acknowledged: “I am not admitted to practice in the Court of Federal Claims,” and “I have not litigated in the Court of Federal Claims.”

It is an embarrassment and an affront to the federal judiciary that these two young and profoundly inexperienced people have been nominated for federal judgeships.

Trump’s nominees don’t just lack the necessary legal experience and work ethic, though both of these should be deal breakers. Many also lack the essential qualities of fairness and impartiality. Here is a sampling of other Trump nominees who are completely unsuited on similar grounds:

Damien Schiff: This Court of Federal Claims nominee, also in his 30s, is a prolific right-wing blogger who has called Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy “a judicial prostitute,” criticized an anti–LGBT bullying program as “teaching gayness in public schools,” and said the Supreme Court’s decision reaffirming the constitutionality of equal opportunity and affirmative action in university admissions was akin to the Supreme Court’s infamous decisions that authorized slavery, Jim Crow laws, and Japanese internment camps.

Thomas Farr: This North Carolina district court nominee has devoted his legal career to suppressing voting rights and defending companies and individuals accused of employment discrimination and sexual harassment. After his public hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, information came to light suggesting that Farr may have lied to the committee about his knowledge of a 1990 effort by the Jesse Helms for Senate campaign to intimidate black voters. Senators must demand more information from the Justice Department to determine his truthfulness and his involvement in this nefarious conduct, which sought to deter black Americans from voting.

Stuart Kyle Duncan: This Louisiana nominee to the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit is a right-wing ideologue who described the Supreme Court’s decision ensuring marriage equality as “an abject failure” that “imperils civic peace.” It is hard to imagine with his extensive record that all litigants would have confidence they would receive a fair hearing before him.

Matthew Kacsmaryk: This Texas district court nominee is another anti-LGBT activist and culture warrior who does not respect the equal dignity of all people. He has written that LGBT rights and reproductive freedom are premised on a “lie” that resulted from nothing more than “the erotic desires of liberated adults.” He has expressed support for the notion that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to natural law,” and he defended the actions of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who went to jail after refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. His brazen disrespect for longstanding precedent and the rule of law should be disqualifying for a position that requires both.

Mark Norris: This Tennessee district court nominee has a fervent hostility to civil rights, demonstrated by legislation and policies he has endorsed during his 17 years in the state Senate. He has supported legislation to restrict voting rights, to stop local communities from removing Confederate monuments, to prohibit teachers from providing any information about LGBT issues in public schools, and to ban cities and counties from enacting laws to protect LGBT residents from discrimination. He also backed efforts to stop refugee resettlement in Tennessee and to disallow undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition, to require the state driver’s license exam to be taken only in English, and to urge Congress to overturn the Obama administration’s rule on contraceptive access.

Along with professional experience, a judicial nominee needs to answer the simple question of whether a member of the LGBT community with a discrimination claim would feel they could get a fair hearing before one of these men — and yes, they are all men, as are most of Trump’s judicial nominees. Would a female employee seeking access to contraception believe she had a judge with an open mind? Would a person of color with a voting rights claim think they had any chance of success before this nominee?

The Trump White House clearly lacks respect for the quality and independence of the federal judiciary, openly boasting about its efforts to lard the federal courts with judicial extremists in their thirties and forties. There’s also a shameful lack of diversity among them: 90% are white and more than 80% are men. This is the least diverse slate of nominees in decades, which would further undermine confidence in our courts.

The recent withdrawals of Petersen, Talley, and Mateer are encouraging, but the Senate must step up its efforts to scrutinize and reject these unqualified and radical nominees. The fate and fitness of the federal judiciary — and, in turn, our very democracy — depends on it.

Vanita Gupta is the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

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