The Courts

Trump Turns to McConnell Ally to Fill Vacancy on Influential Appeals Court

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wielded decisive clout in the selection process for a key judicial vacancy President Donald Trump filled Friday, leveraging a deep reserve of good will accrued from four years as field marshal of Trump’s campaign to stock the federal bench with conservative jurists.

The president tapped U.S. District Judge Justin Walker, a McConnell ally, for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. At 38, Walker is the youngest nominee for the D.C. Circuit in decades. His nomination will likely be the last major confrontation over judgeships before the November election.

The nomination is as much a function of McConnell’s influence as it is Walker’s growing reputation in the conservative legal movement. Walker, a Kentuckian who serves on a federal trial court in Louisville, has been close to the senator for years. McConnell’s able stewardship of judicial confirmations gave him pivotal influence in a selection process that might otherwise have been fractious. Between academics, administration officials, and Washington lawyers, there was a deep reserve of prospective nominees for a panel widely seen as a springboard to the Supreme Court.

"Conservatives inside and outside of the administration recognize and appreciate the impact McConnell has had on the judiciary over many years, and very quickly agreed to McConnell's preference, particularly since Walker looked like a safe pick," a source involved in judicial selection told the Washington Free Beacon.

"McConnell made his pitch. Everyone took a look at Walker. Then things fell into place very quickly," the source added.

The Free Beacon first reported that Walker was in contention for the nomination on March 5. Other contenders included acting associate attorney general Claire Murray and deputy White House counsel Kate Todd.

The selection was made all the easier by Walker’s dedicated support of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Walker, who clerked for Kavanaugh after graduating from Harvard Law School, was one of the justice’s most prolific surrogates, giving dozens of interviews and speeches promoting Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Given the trying circumstances, Walker secured the enduring gratitude of legal conservatives.

"Judge Walker was an unrelenting defender of Justice Kavanaugh during the left's unprecedented smear campaign," said Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network. "I expect Walker to bring similar courage with him to the D.C. Circuit as he defends the rule of law. I look forward to his confirmation."

The Trump administration has approached judicial selection as a companion to its deregulatory agenda. That consideration is especially important for the D.C. Circuit, which has jurisdiction over dozens of federal agencies. About half of the D.C. Circuit’s cases concern regulations, agency proceedings, and other administrative law issues according to statistics kept by the U.S. Judicial Conference.

"We are thrilled with President Trump’s nomination of Judge Justin Walker to serve on the D.C. Circuit, a key federal appellate court that protects all Americans from the arbitrary, harmful government actions by Washington’s out of control administrative state," said Mike Davis of the Article III Project and former chief nominations counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee.

McConnell gave the nomination a populist hue in a statement following the nomination, praising the president for searching "outside the Beltway and into the Bluegrass." Yet Walker’s résumé is heavy with Washington pedigree. He was a speechwriter to former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy, and practiced in the Washington offices of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a prestigious law firm.

Still, Walker left the capital for Kentucky in 2013, where he edited books on education policy, mathematics, and political subjects while leading a nonprofit that coordinates student empowerment programs. He also served on the law faculty at the University of Louisville, teaching courses on legal writing and professional skills. His scholarship includes national security law issues and the separation of powers.

The president appointed Walker to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky in 2019.

The American Bar Association complicated his confirmation when its standing committee on the federal judiciary gave Walker a "not qualified" assessment. In a letter summarizing the panel’s views, committee chairman Paul Moxley cited Walker’s apparent lack of trial experience as a source of concern. He also noted that the committee prefers candidates with at least 12 years experience practicing law, while Walker had been a lawyer for fewer than 10 years.

The letter added that Walker "has great potential to serve as a federal judge."

If confirmed, Walker will succeed Judge Thomas Griffith, who announced his retirement in March.