The Senate confirmed three judicial nominees to federal appeals courts this week, rounding out a record-setting year-long confirmation gamut.
The nominees, Leonard Grasz, Don Willett, and James Ho were appointed to the 5th and 8th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal. The Senate has cleared 12 nominations to the circuit courts since President Donald Trump assumed office, a record for the modern era.
All three nominees were confirmed on narrow party-line votes, and they mark the culmination of a remarkably successful confirmation effort. Trump has secured 12 circuit court confirmations this year, as well as Justice Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. By way of comparison, former President Barack Obama had just three circuit court confirmations during the first year of his administration — former President George W. Bush had six, and former President Bill Clinton had three.
Circuit courts are federal appeals courts that review decisions made by federal trial courts. Since the Supreme Court hears approximately eighty cases each year, circuit courts render the final decision in the overwhelming majority of cases.
As of this writing, there are currently 144 vacancies on the federal courts, according to the Judicial Conference of the United States.
The Willett and Ho nominations were championed by GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, as both men will serve on federal courts in Texas.
“I have known the both of them for decades,” Cruz said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “Both are close friends. Both are brilliant lawyers. Both have spent decades earning a reputation as principled constitutionalists who will remain faithful to the law and will not impose their own policy preferences from the bench.”
Prior to his nomination, Ho served as Texas’ appellate advocate before entering private practice at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, while Willett served for a decade on the Texas Supreme Court.
Willett’s judicial writings have attracted enthusiasm from libertarian legal circles. His 2015 concurring opinion in Patel v. Texas Department of Licensing, in which he suggested courts ought to apply greater scrutiny to government regulations of economic activity, is particularly popular in right-wing quarters. He was also a prolific tweeter, though his account has not been active since his nomination.
Grasz’s nomination elicited especially strong opposition from Democrats. The American Bar Association’s standing committee on the federal judiciary gave Grasz a unanimous “unqualified” rating, citing concerns about his judicial temperament. Grasz was a lawyer for the Republican party before joining the Nebraska Attorney General’s office, where he generated memoranda reflecting socially conservative views about abortion and same sex marriage.
Conservative court-watchers lavished praise on the nominees after their confirmations.
“They will uphold the Constitution and fairly apply the law,” said Carrie Severino, chief counsel of the Judicial Crisis Network. “As the president continues to nominate exceptional individuals to the federal bench, I look forward to the Senate quickly confirming them to fill the many remaining judicial vacancies so they can serve the public for years to come.”
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