Hello and welcome back to Trump Watch. I’m your host Cogan Schneier, Washington, D.C.-based litigation reporter at the National Law Journal. It’s been a wild week here in our nation’s capital. The Senate is still in shock that a Democrat from Alabama will soon join their ranks, a major tax overhaul bill is nearing completion and Omarosa Manigault resigned from her job in the White House, though some press reports suggest she was fired (little bit of history repeating, right? See Episode 9 in Season 1 of “The Apprentice”).

But you know what’s been extra whackadoodle this week? Judicial nominations! Two of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees will not be confirmed, the first of his picks to fail. What does it mean and why should you care? I’m breaking down all the #judgedrama in this week’s newsletter. Tips, comments, concerns? Email ‘em to me at cschneier@alm.com or tweet at me.


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Trump’s Judge-a-Palooza: Still Winning?



It’s been a dramatic week for judicial nominations, my friends. The White House had a record-setting win Thursday with the confirmation of its 12th appellate judge. There were also losses, as news broke that two of the president’s picks for lifetime appointments for U.S. district courts will not move forward. You may be rolling your eyes, thinking, who cares? But this is a big moment: the failure marks a significant change in the judicial nominations landscape.

So far, Trump’s judicial nominations machine is perhaps the most successful endeavor of his presidency. The failure of district court nominees Brett Talley for the Middle District of Alabama and Jeff Mateer for the Eastern District of Texas, gives weight to criticisms from Democrats and liberal advocacy groups, who argue the administration let proper vetting fall to the wayside in its efforts to quickly fill federal benches with young, conservative nominees.

→ While the White House did not provide an explanation for why the nominations will not move forward, Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was reportedly ”concerned” about public statements from both nominees, and urged the administration not to proceed. Talley, who was rated ”not qualified” by the American Bar Association, has never tried a case and defended early members of the Ku Klux Klan in blog posts. Mateer, rated ”qualified,” had referred to transgender children as evidence of “Satan’s plan” in speeches.

→ In an email to me, Carl Tobiasa professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who tracks judicial nominations put it this way: “I am cautiously optimistic that the WH will be more careful in nominating people for the bench and the Senate will be more careful in assessing the nominees.” Tobias wrote that while Grassley deserves credit for publicly opposing the nominees, he’s been pushing nominees through the process too quickly, which means issues with qualifications are often overlooked.

→ Lena Zwarensteyn, director for strategic engagement at the liberal-leaning American Constitution Society, also tweeted that she hopes this means a change in vetting: “Let’s also set the standard for lifetime appointments and the vetting higher, shall we?”

Still, the White House won more than it lost with its nominations this week. 

With the confirmation of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher partner James Ho to the Fifth Circuit Thursday afternoon, Trump now has 12 confirmed appellate judges. 

→ That’s an all-time record for appellate confirmations in the first year of a presidency. Before Thursday, presidents John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were tied at 11 appellate confirmations.

→ The other two confirmed this week are Steven Grasz, the former chief deputy attorney general of Nebraska, for the Eighth Circuit (rated ’not qualified’ by the ABA) and Justice Don Willett, of the Texas Supreme Court, for the Fifth Circuit.

→ This is major. With the Supreme Court taking only a fraction of cases each year, the appellate level is the final stop for most legal disputes. Trump has had a bigger influence on appellate courts in his first year than any other president. Wowza.


Speaking of qualifications:


-Matthew Petersen, a nominee for the federal district court in D.C., took a major beating yesterday in his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, my colleague Celia Ampel reports. Petersen, who currently serves as a commissioner on the Federal Elections Commission, failed a pop quiz from Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana who has pushed back on several Trump nominees. Kennedy asked Petersen to define basic legal terms like “motion in limine” and “Daubert” standard. “I would probably not be able to give you a good definition right here at the table,” Petersen said. *Cringe* 

-HuffPo’s Sam Levine reports that Thomas Farr, the nominee for the Eastern District of North Carolina, may also be in judicial hot water. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, asked the Justice Department on Wednesday to turn over a document that could show Farr lied about his involvement with an effort to keep African Americans away from the polls more than two decades ago. Farr said he had nothing to do with a postcard mailing that spread falsehoods about voting qualifications when he worked as a lawyer for the 1990 campaign of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina. DOJ eventually sued over the incident, and now, a former DOJ official says his notes from the case suggest Farr was involved. More here.


In other Trump news:


-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein went to bat Wednesday for Robert Mueller, defending the integrity of the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election from allegations of bias by Republican lawmakers. More here, from moi.

-The Justice Department is on Joe Arpaio’s side in the former sheriff’s fight to get his criminal contempt verdict erased following a pardon from the president, Mike Scarcella reports. Details here.

-Carter Page, the energy consultant who served as an informal adviser to Trump in the 2016 election, filed an amicus brief in DOJ’s antitrust case against AT&T. I have more here about why Page wants in on this case.

-Erin Mulvaney reports that Trump’s National Labor Relations Board is taking the first steps to undo an Obama-era rule that sped up the union election process. The NLRB posted a “notice and request for information” about ending the rule, but the board’s Democratic members say it’s more like a “notice and request for alternative facts.” More here.

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