WASHINGTON – Republican Sen. Cory Gardner burnished his near-perfect record in support of his party’s effort to reshape the federal judiciary, voting this week for seven more of President Trump’s lifetime appointments to the federal bench.
That brings his total support for the president’s judicial nominees to 118 out of 119 confirmed appointments – including two Supreme Court justices – according to Quorum, a public affairs software company that tallied the votes for the Newsroom.
Democrats intend to use Gardner’s record against him in his 2020 bid for a second term.
“The way in which he has rubber-stamped all these judges is going to be one of the major arguments from Democrats about why Gardner should lose his job,” said Stewart Boss, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Republicans dismissed the assessment and praised the caliber of this crop of judicial nominees. “Cory Gardner has voted to put rule-of-law judges on federal courts at every level, including the Supreme Court,” Colorado GOP spokesman Kyle Kohli said.
Kohli noted that many Democratic senators – including Colorado’s Michael Bennet, a presidential candidate – have backed Trump’s judicial nominees as well. Bennet has voted for at least 41 of the president’s 119 confirmed judicial nominees, according to Quorum. “If Bennet’s votes are also unacceptable to Democrats, that speaks volumes on how far-left their party has strayed in Colorado,” Kohli said.
The Constitution grants the president the power to appoint federal judges with approval of the U.S. Senate. This power applies to nominations for 94 district courts, 13 courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court. Apart from the nine Supreme Court justices, more than 600 judges sit on district courts and nearly 200 on courts of appeals.
” … he’s with Trump and not us”
Democrats intend to highlight Gardner’s record on the lower-level judicial appointments to district and appellate courts as part of their overall strategy to tie him to Trump, whose disapproval rating in Colorado is around 55%. “It’s part of how we’re showing he’s with Trump and not with us,” Colorado Democratic Party spokeswoman Alyssa Roberts said.
In addition to spotlighting Gardner’s votes for Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch – a Coloradan whom Gardner championed – Roberts pointed to the senator’s votes for judges who have opposed reproductive rights and health care for people with pre-existing conditions, such as Wendy Vitter, Michael Truncale, and Chad Readler – all confirmed this spring on near-party line votes.
Vitter, who now sits on the Eastern District Court of Louisiana, has a long history of advocating against abortion rights, according to The Advocate, a Baton Rouge newspaper. Truncale, confirmed to the Eastern District Court of Texas, drew opposition from progressives for his calls to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and defund Planned Parenthood. And Readler, now on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, filed a brief last year in support of GOP efforts to strike down the ACA, including its protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
Gardner’s votes for Trump’s judges put him in a tough political spot, said Dan Goldberg, legal director at the Alliance for Justice, a progressive advocacy coalition. “He cannot stand before the people of Colorado and say that he supports protecting people with pre-existing conditions and then vote for Chad Readler. He can’t have it both ways.”
Goldberg also highlighted Gardner’s support for judges he characterized as anti-environment, such as Colorado’s Allison Eid, whom he said supports the use of eminent domain to build oil pipelines but not community parks. Eid –– strongly backed by Gardner – was confirmed to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals seat vacated by Gorsuch in 2017 and was on Trump’s Supreme Court short list.
Gardner’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
While the GOP-controlled Senate is accused of becoming a “legislative graveyard,” the pace of judicial nominations – which don’t require approval from the Democratic-held House – is speeding up.
In addition to two Supreme Court justices, Republicans have confirmed 117 lower-level judges nominated by Trump. That’s 33 more lower-level judges – including 22 more circuit court judges – than President Obama had gotten through at the same point in his administration.
“The longest impact on our country”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) credits the progress to a rules change he engineered that has allowed his party to confirm nominees “in a fraction of the time it would have otherwise taken.” The effort is paying off, he told an anti-abortion group earlier this month. “I think that’s the way we have the longest impact on our country, and the most positive way into the future.”
McConnell boasted that during Trump’s tenure, the Senate has confirmed 41 appellate court judges, which, he pointed out, are “right below the Supreme Court” in the power hierarchy. “To put that in context, that’s about one in five of the Courts of Appeals judges nationwide have now been appointed by this president and confirmed by this Senate in two and a half years. And I want you to know that my view is, there will be no vacancies left behind. None.”
Gardner is in lock-step behind McConnell, having voted against only one of Trump’s judicial nominees: Mark Bennett of Hawaii, whose nomination drew fire from gun rights groups. Despite opposition from Gardner and 26 other Republicans, Bennett was confirmed last year to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Political scientist Matthew Hitt, a professor at Colorado State University, says voters aren’t likely paying much attention to the GOP’s efforts to stack the lower courts – or care much. While many are attuned to the Supreme Court, few pay attention to lawmakers’ support for lower-level nominees, he said. And while those who do may be more inclined to vote as a result of this issue, they aren’t likely to change how they vote over it. “Someone who is upset with Cory Gardner on his vote for the D.C. Circuit is already upset with Cory Gardner,” he said.
But Roberts of the Colorado Democratic Party said voters are waking up to the influence that lower-level judges have on American life, especially in the wake of new state laws restricting access to abortion. “Coloradans understand that the courts have the final say on our basic rights and that everything from clean air and water to health care and reproductive freedom” is at stake, she said.