WASHINGTON ― It’s hard to keep up with all of President Donald Trump’s questionable nominees for lifetime federal judgeships.
There was Brett Talley, a 36-year-old lawyer and former paranormal activity investigator who tweeted about Hillary Clinton being “rotten” and said his solution to the Sandy Hook shooting massacre “would be to stop being a society of pansies and man up.” Matthew Petersen, also a 36-year-old lawyer, couldn’t answer basic questions about law in his confirmation hearing and was basically shamed into withdrawing. Jeff Mateer, a 52-year-old lawyer who described transgender children as evidence of “Satan’s plan” and endorsed gay conversion therapy, was eventually withdrawn too.
None of those nominees made it through the Senate confirmation process. But a growing number of Trump’s court picks are slipping through despite earning a rare and embarrassing “not qualified” rating by the nonpartisan American Bar Association. And Republicans are ready to confirm even more of them.
This week alone, two of Trump’s court picks who earned the abysmal ABA rating ― Sarah Pitlyk and Lawrence VanDyke ― inched forward. Pitlyk, a 42-year-old lawyer who previously clerked for then-D.C. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh, advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday on a party-line vote. VanDyke, a 46-year-old lawyer who is the former solicitor general of both Nevada and Montana, got his confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
“Mr. VanDyke’s accomplishments are offset by the assessments of interviewees that Mr. VanDyke is arrogant, lazy, an ideologue, and lacking in knowledge of the day-to-day practice including procedural rules,” reads the brutal ABA review of VanDyke. “There was a theme that the nominee lacks humility, has an ‘entitlement’ temperament, does not have an open mind, and does not always have a commitment to being candid and truthful.”
The ABA, which has reviewed each of a president’s judicial nominees for decades, interviewed 60 people in its assessment of VanDyke ― including 43 lawyers and 16 judges. It found that VanDyke’s colleagues “would not say affirmatively that he would be fair to any litigant before him, notably members of the LGBTQ community.”
This detail made VanDyke, Trump’s pick for a lifetime seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, cry during his hearing.
“I do not believe that,” he told lawmakers. “It is a fundamental belief of mine that all people are created in the image of God and they should all be treated with dignity and respect.”
Pitlyk, meanwhile, earned the even more rare distinction of a unanimous “not qualified” ABA rating due to her “very substantial gap” in trial or litigation experience. She is Trump’s choice for a lifetime seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.
“Ms. Pitlyk has never tried a case as lead or co-counsel, whether civil or criminal. She has never examined a witness,” reads her ABA review. “Though Ms. Pitlyk has argued one case in a court of appeals, she has not taken a deposition. She has not argued any motion in a state or federal trial court. She has never picked a jury. She has never participated at any stage of a criminal matter.”
There’s no reason to think that Pitlyk and VanDyke won’t both be confirmed. Not a single Republican has raised concerns with their records or any of Trump’s previous judicial nominees deemed unfit by the nation’s top lawyers’ group.
Just last week, the Senate voted to confirm Justin Walker, 37, to a lifetime seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. This was despite the ABA concluding that Walker is unqualified because he “does not presently have the requisite trial or litigation experience” to be a federal judge.
“Mr. Walker’s experience to date has a very substantial gap, namely the absence of any significant trial experience,” the ABA said in its July review. “Mr. Walker has never tried a case as lead or co-counsel, whether civil or criminal. ... In addition, based on review of his biographical information and conversations with Mr. Walker, it was challenging to determine how much of his ten years since graduation from law school has been spent in the practice of law.”
Despite all that, Walker sailed through without a single Republican voting no. Every Democrat present voted no.
In total, Senate Republicans have confirmed five of Trump’s court picks who earned a “not qualified” rating from the ABA. If Pitlyk and VanDyke are confirmed, they will be numbers six and seven.
Others include U.S. Circuit Judge Leonard Steven Grasz, who the ABA concluded was “unable to separate his role as an advocate from that of a judge,” given his strong anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion views; U.S. District Judge Charles Goodwin, who the ABA said lacked the ability to fulfill the demands of a federal judgeship given his frequent absence from the courthouse in his former role as a magistrate judge; and U.S. Circuit Judge Jonathan Kobes, who the ABA found “was unable to provide sufficient writing samples of the caliber required” of a circuit judge.
For context, in his entire eight years in the White House, President Barack Obama didn’t nominate anyone to be a lifetime federal judge who earned a “not qualified” ABA rating.
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