Republicans Increase Attacks on the Bar After Countless Trump Nominees Exposed as Unqualified
Senate Republicans have declared war on the American Bar Association.
Since 1953, the venerable legal organization has played a critical, behind-the-scenes role in assessing judicial nominees and their fitness to serve on the bench.
But with the ABA emerging as a major stumbling block in President Donald Trump’s effort to transform the courts, the GOP is accusing the nonpartisan group of holding a liberal slant and is seeking to sideline it.
The ABA has deemed at least four of Trump’s judicial nominees “not qualified” — a high number, although other administrations had the ABA evaluate candidates privately before they were nominated. Democrats warn of dire consequences of ignoring the group’s evaluations. But Republicans are intent on a dramatic reshaping of the federal judiciary that could last for decades and so far, haven’t been persuaded by the ABA’s ratings.
As the Senate prepares this week to confirm one appellate nominee that the ABA said was not qualified for the bench, Republicans are instead ratcheting up their attacks to try to discredit the century-old group.
"The ABA's record on judicial nominations has been highly questionable," said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It has demonstrated over past decades repeatedly partisan interests and ideological interests."
Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who also sits on the Judiciary Committee and is a vocal GOP critic of Trump, added: “Not a big fan of the ABA.”
The bar association has already been diminished somewhat under Trump. In a shift from the Obama White House and a return to the policy of George W. Bush, the administration decided earlier this year not to allow the ABA to review potential candidates before they were nominated.
The group says it will still evaluate nominees once their names are released, but Democrats are worried that Trump officials are abandoning the practice so Republicans can push through younger, conservative attorneys who may not have as much experience to a lifetime position on the bench.
"This is, I believe, such a mistake, in my heart of hearts," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel. "This is sort of the one legally-oriented counsel that we get. And generally, it's pretty benign except if there is a problem. Then we know it. Otherwise we would not know it."
The bar association has so far assessed 57 judicial nominees under Trump, who arrived at the White House with among the highest number of judicial vacancies in decades. Four nominees have been found to be not qualified by the ABA: Charles Goodwin for the Western District of Oklahoma, Brett Talley for the Middle District of Alabama, Holly Teeter of the District of Kansas, and Leonard Steven Grasz, picked for the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and whose nomination will face a key procedural vote Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has teed up the nominations of Grasz and two other circuit court candidates this week, which will give Trump 12 people confirmed to the appellate courts this year. Former President Barack Obama had three circuit court nominees installed in the first year of his presidency.
Grasz, a lawyer in Nebraska who served as the state’s chief deputy attorney general, has the undesirable distinction of being unanimously rated not qualified by the ABA’s evaluators. In its report, the ABA raised the prospect that Grasz would be “unable to separate his role as an advocate from that of a judge,” while some lawyers interviewed by the bar association called the nominee “gratuitously rude.”
He is one of just two nominees unanimously deemed “not qualified” by the ABA since 1989 due to concerns about his temperament, according to written responsesprovided to Feinstein from the association. In that time frame, the ABA evaluated 1,755 nominees.
But that has done little to diminish GOP support for Grasz, who has been fiercely defended by Republicans, particularly by his home-state senator, Ben Sasse of Nebraska.
“The ABA is a liberal advocacy organization. That’s not a bad thing. You can be a liberal advocacy organization,” Sasse argued at a recent hearing. “What’s not OK is being a liberal advocacy organization and be masquerading as a neutral, objective evaluator of these judicial candidates.”
Sasse criticized the two lead reviewers of Grasz’s nomination — Cynthia Nance and Laurence Pulgram — as “blatant partisans with a sad track record of hackery” who have supported liberal causes and candidates. Other Republicans have slammed the broader organization for opposing legislation to crack down on illegal immigration or breaking up the liberal-leaning 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, long a conservative priority.
In a statement to POLITICO, ABA President Hilarie Bass said the group is a “nonpartisan organization that has focused on legal issues and not politics” and that it has vetted thousands of judicial nominees “fairly and in a nonpartisan fashion” under both Republican and Democratic administrations.