2020 Dems' opposition builds against Trump judges

By Marianne LeVine

Sen. Amy Klobuchar once supported a majority of President Donald Trump’s nominees to the federal judiciary. But this year, the Minnesota Democrat’s backing of them plummeted.

Klobuchar isn’t alone. Every senator running for president has voted far less often for Trump’s judges this year compared with the previous Congress.

Trump's focus on the federal judiciary has put the issue front and center on the 2020 stage, giving senators vying for the Oval Office another opportunity to please the liberal grassroots and potentially push others in the caucus to resist the president and the GOP’s agenda.

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have rejected every Trump judge since this Congress began. Klobuchar, who drew fire from progressives for previously supporting 64 percent of the Trump nominees, supported only 3 percent, according to data provided exclusively by the liberal judicial group Demand Justice.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California supported 6 percent of judges she voted on this Congress, compared with 51 percent previously; Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey voted for 49 percent of Trump’s nominees last Congress and 11 percent this year.

“You could ask me about each [nominee] and each one has something wrong with their record,” Gillibrand said. “They’re either unqualified or they have views that are so disproportionately outside the norm that I couldn’t support them.”

Of the 2020 candidates, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado voted for Trump judges the most, at 31 percent this Congress, but still down from 67 percent the previous Congress.

But it’s not just 2020 Democrats. Growing opposition to Trump judges is part of a broader trend within the Senate Democratic Caucus, according to Demand Justice's data.

Democrats on average are voting far less often for Trump judges. That’s in part because of a pressure campaign from progressive groups like Demand Justice, as well as fewer deals between Republican and Democratic leaders to confirm whole batches of judges on voice votes. Democrats have also blamed the White House for their choice in nominees.

“Senator Warren holds every nominee to the high standard appropriate for a lifetime appointment to the federal judiciary,” said Ashley Woolheater, a spokesperson for Warren. “Unfortunately, this administration and Senate Republicans do not.”

Procedural changes are also a factor; Republicans partially discarded a long-standing policy that gave Democrats more say over home-state judicial nominees, leading to more partisan appointments. Both Gillibrand and Harris cited that as a key reason for their opposition to Trump judicial nominees. And with a recent rules change to speed up confirmations, Democrats have more opportunity to vote down partisan picks.

"This is pretty basic — every single Democratic Senator's support for judicial nominees dropped significantly when the Republicans forced through a rule change to further limit debate on judicial nominees," said a Klobuchar spokesperson in a statement. "As ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee, Senator Klobuchar led the fight against this raw Republican exercise of power and was particularly and fervently opposed."

Demand Justice tallied its data by calculating Democrats’ key procedural votes that advanced judicial nominees to a full vote, using public information. If a senator wasn’t present for the procedural vote, the group counted the final vote.

Democrats’ refusal to support Trump’s judges comes as the future of the federal judiciary has emerged as a key campaign issue. Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have made confirming judicial nominees a top priority, with the president’s team hoping that confirming conservative judges galvanizes his base. Meanwhile, some Democratic presidential contenders are pledging to expand the Supreme Court in a bid to reverse its rightward shift and take back the high court seat that Republicans denied President Barack Obama.

“I think if you’re running for president in a Democratic primary and more and more progressives are raising concerns about what happens to the courts under Trump, it stands to reason that you’d take a more skeptical approach to Trump judges,” said Brian Fallon, executive director of Demand Justice.

Democrats’ consistent opposition to the White House’s judicial nominees typically doesn’t affect confirmation. The judges only need a majority to get confirmed and rarely lack support in the Republican-controlled Senate. But their opposition has prompted criticism from Republicans and conservative groups, who say Democrats are merely playing politics.

“They’ve lost their minds,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It’s just reflexive so I don’t think it’s any reflection on the nominees in particular. They’re just opposed to anything and everything the president is for.”

The topic of the federal judiciary even came up in the first Democratic debate in June. Booker pledged that he would appoint judges who would enforce antitrust law, while Julián Castro and Sanders vowed to nominate only judges who upheld Roe v. Wade. Sanders added that he believed that “constitutionally we have the power to rotate judges to other courts,” which he said “brings in new blood into the Supreme Court.”

Both conservative and liberal judicial groups are planning to capitalize on the issue during the 2020 campaign cycle. The conservative Judicial Crisis Network spent $1.1 million on national ad buys intended to pressure former Vice President Joe Biden and other 2020 candidates to release a list of who they would appoint to the Supreme Court, citing Trump's decision to release a list during his 2016 campaign.

The liberal Alliance for Justice, meanwhile, has launched a recruitment effort to identify potential nominees. Demand Justice is preparing a list of qualifications of judicial nominees the group would like to see implemented, in addition to its “report cards” on the nominees.

“Our intention is not that any candidate will adopt the list as their own,” Fallon said. “Our point is to make a statement about the types of nominees that we think should be prioritized by the next Democratic president."