Robert Raben of Washington’s The Raben Group. Credit: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ

A Washington lobbying firm with veterans of the Clinton and Obama administrations is joining a growing Democratic effort that puts the federal judiciary—both shaping the courts and resisting Trump administration nominees—in sharper focus within the political arena.

The Raben Group registered Thursday to lobby on judicial nominations for a closely affiliated nonprofit, the Committee for a Fair Judiciary (CFJ), which was founded in 2011 to address the perceived enthusiasm gap on the left that relegates the importance of judicial nominations. Republicans, on the other hand, have long rallied around the courts, and the Trump administration is reshaping the judiciary with a crop of young, largely white and male, court nominees.

The new lobbying registration, dated Thursday but effective April 2, coincided with the public rollout of a Democratic-led group with a similar focus on the judiciary: Demand Justice. On Thursday, the New York Times reported that Brian Fallon, a former spokesman for the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Obama-era U.S. Justice Department, is stepping down as a CNN political commentator to lead the group’s efforts to invigorate Democrats around court nominations.

Robert Raben, who founded his namesake lobbying firm after serving as the assistant attorney general for legislative affairs at Main Justice during the Clinton administration, serves as the chairman of the board for the CFJ and is listed as the group’s principal officer on GuideStar, a database of nonprofit records. The committee’s executive director, Elliot Williams, joined the Raben Group as a principal in February 2017 after serving as the deputy assistant attorney general for DOJ’s legislative affairs office under the Obama administration.

Williams said the CFJ’s board approved a retainer for the Raben Group’s work. He did not specify the amount of the retainer. In 2013, Politico reported that the Internal Revenue Service had questioned the CFJ about how it would separate its activities from those of the Raben Group.

In a phone interview, Williams said the Raben Group registration reflects the CFJ’s effort to more aggressively engage Congress and to affirmatively oppose the confirmation of Trump nominees whom the group deems unfit for the bench.

“There isn’t a political fire on the left when it comes to judicial nominations. Broadly speaking, the left tends to regard judicial nominations as academic and not political,” Williams said. “Our goal is to get the left to see judicial nominations as a political issue as much as a process one or an academic one.”

In addition to Raben and Williams, Raben Group principal Joe Onek and senior associate James Colligan will lobby for the CFJ. Onek served during the Clinton administration as principal associate attorney general and as senior coordinator for rule of law at the U.S. State Department.

The Raben Group has previously lobbied on judicial nominations for the liberal Alliance for Justice and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, a group that has pushed for greater diversity on the federal bench. Raben’s firm stopped lobbying for the NAPABA in 2011 and for the AJ in 2008, according to disclosure forms. AJ still lobbies on its own and is a public voice of opposition to Trump nominees.

WIlliams said the CFJ’s stepped-up efforts were prompted, in part, by Trump nominees he described as “manifestly unfit to serve on the federal bench.” He pointed to Jeff Mateer, a top lawyer in the Texas attorney general’s office, whose nomination for a federal trial court seat fell apart following revelations that he described transgender children as evidence of “Satan’s plan.”

Several other Trump administration nominations faced major hurdles or collapsed. Brett Talley, a deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department who was up for a seat in Alabama, faced questions about his lack of experience arguing cases in federal court. Talley had been rated “unanimously unqualified” by the American Bar Association. Another pick, Matthew Petersen, a sitting Federal Election Commission member, was mocked for flunking a senator’s quiz about definitions of commonly filed motions in federal court.

Asked why the CFJ had not ratcheted up its lobbying earlier in Trump’s tenure, Williams replied, “It’s taken some time to see exactly how bad it is.”

“The big difference is Donald Trump and the kinds of nominees and the kind of disrespect for the process we’ve seen with nominees for the last couple years,” he said. “It’s obviously a different ballgame than it was three years ago with respect to what’s happening with the federal judiciary. As a result—and, frankly, the creation or formal launch of Demand Justice is indicative of this—there is tremendous energy or growing energy right now around saving the federal judiciary. We are seeking to get more aggressive in that effort.”

The Trump administration’s push on judicial nominations has outpaced previous administrations. The Senate has already confirmed 15 of Trump’s picks for federal appeals courts, and it is set to vote next week on six additional appellate nominees.

“We’re going to continue to confirm judges all year. The Congress doesn’t stop with the elections. It goes until the end of the year,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday. “I’m processing them as quickly as they come out of the Judiciary Committee.”

 

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