Ted Cruz will oppose Trump's judicial nominee

By Burgess Everett, Marianne LeVine and Eliana Johnson

Sen. Ted Cruz will oppose President Donald Trump’s nominee for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, Halil Suleyman “Sul” Ozerden, a major setback for the embattled nomination.

Cruz (R-Texas) has informed the White House and colleagues this week that he will oppose Ozerden, according to three people familiar with the Judiciary Committee’s internal dynamics. That conservative opposition places in doubt the future of Ozerden, who is a close friend of acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and whose nomination Mulvaney pushed over the objections of the White House Counsel's office.

“For a lifetime appointment on the court of appeals, I believe we should be looking for someone with a strong, demonstrated record as a constitutionalist. I have significant concerns that Judge Ozerden’s judicial record does not indicate that he meets that standard. For that reason, I do not believe he should be on the court of appeals, and I will oppose his nomination," Cruz said in a statement for this story.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has held a hearing for Ozerden but has not yet held a committee vote. Republicans are split on whether he will move forward: Some believe the White House may have to withdraw the nomination, others want to push him through despite reluctance among conservatives about Ozerden.

Other undecided senators are digging into the nomination. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) met with Ozerden on Thursday morning and Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said he was undecided on the nomination. But the Mississippi judge got a boost Thursday from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) who decided to vote for his nomination after meeting with Ozerden, according to Lee's spokesperson.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also said he's a "yes" on Ozerden. He said he was unsure if the nominee will get a favorable vote in committee but that "he deserves a vote."

As a district judge, Ozerden approved the Obama administration’s dismissal of a challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage mandate, deeming the challenge premature. Senate Republicans have expressed concern about Ozerden’s decision in 2012.

Unlike most other Trump judicial nominees, Ozerden lacks explicit backing from conservative judicial groups like the Judicial Crisis Network. Carrie Severino, the group's chief counsel, wrote last year that "we could do better than Judge Ozerden" in Mississippi.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to comment about Ozerden, as did the White House.

The Trump administration and McConnell have made confirming judges a major priority, clinching their 150th lifetime confirmation on Wednesday. But those successes are occasionally marred by setbacks, and Ozerden isn’t the only judicial nominee hanging in the balance.

Steven Menashi, a nominee to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, frustrated senators in both parties Wednesday when questioned about his writings as well as his refusal to answer questions on his role shaping the White House’s immigration policy. Menashi is currently associate counsel to the president and served as a lawyer in the Education Department under Betsy DeVos.