WASHINGTON ― The Senate is back in session after a month of recess and Republicans’ first order of business isn’t a comprehensive coronavirus relief bill. Or emergency stimulus in response to high unemployment. Or legislation addressing nationwide unrest over police violence targeting Black Americans.
It’s confirming more judges.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has long said his top priority is getting President Donald Trump’s nominees settled into lifetime federal court seats, didn’t disappoint on Wednesday. At a time when nearly 190,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and unemployment is at 8.4%, the Senate kicked off its first full day of business with a vote to confirm a district court judge, procedural votes to advance two more district court nominees, another vote to confirm one of those nominees, and two more procedural votes to advance two more district court nominees.
Democrats and Republicans are in a standoff over coronavirus relief legislation. The House passed a sweeping $3 trillion package in May that has gone nowhere in the Senate, where Democrats are ready to pass the House bill but Republicans don’t even agree with each other on what to do. Some prefer no action at all on another coronavirus package because it would add to the growing federal deficit.
McConnell will try to pass a narrowly focused COVID-19 relief bill this week, but it’s purely a political exercise ― an effort to give vulnerable Republicans something to run on ahead of the November elections. It includes funding for small businesses and schools and enhanced $300-a-week unemployment benefits. It leaves out another round of stimulus checks, which Republicans previously supported, and does not include rental assistance or aid to cities and states, which Democrats have insisted on. And it’s not even clear if a majority of Republicans will support the bill.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also met Wednesday for the first time in more than a month. The panel, led by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), has jurisdiction over a number of issues related to the health and economic fallout from COVID-19. Graham could, for example, hold hearings that looked at the needs of state and local law enforcement on the front lines of the pandemic. He could hold hearings on the health and safety of corrections staff and incarcerated people. He could hold hearings on changes in immigration policy tied to the pandemic.
Instead, the committee held a hearing to advance five more of Trump’s judicial nominees.
One of those nominees isn’t even qualified to be a federal judge, according to the American Bar Association. Just as the hearing got underway, the ABA released an embarrassing “not qualified” rating for Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, Trump’s nominee for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.
“The nominee presently does not meet the requisite minimum standard of experience necessary to perform the responsibilities required by the high office of a federal trial judge,” reads the ABA’s review of Mizelle’s nomination.
The ABA, which reviews every judicial nominee put forward by a president, sets a minimum of 12 years practicing law as one general standard for someone to be qualified to sit on the federal bench. Mizelle, 33, is eight years out of law school and has practiced law for four years. She has participated in a total of two trials (as a law student) and has not tried a case, civil or criminal, as lead or co-counsel.
Civil rights groups have already announced their opposition to Mizelle, both because of her lack of experience and because of her record in rolling back civil rights. Mizelle was counsel to the associate attorney general in Trump’s Justice Department in 2017 and 2018, and she supervised litigation relating to Ohio’s effort to purge registered voters from its rolls, arguing that businesses have a right to discriminate against LGBTQ customers, and asserting that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, a position ultimately rejected by the Supreme Court.
“This nominee has been put forward not only because she is an ultraconservative ideologue, but also because she is a Trump loyalist, having worked in the Trump Justice Department to dismantle many critical civil rights protections,” reads a Tuesday letter to senators from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 220 national civil rights groups. “The Senate must reject her nomination.”
Trump’s most lasting legacy will arguably be his judges, who will sit on the nation’s courts for decades after he’s left the White House. He has had confirmed a total of 204 Article III judges, including two Supreme Court justices, 53 appeals court judges and 147 district court judges. A common thread among his court picks is that many are young, white, male and hold extreme ideological views on abortion, LGBTQ rights and other civil rights.