President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have taken it upon themselves to stack the federal courts with conservative judges, an effort Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst has aided in lockstep.
Ernst, Iowa’s junior U.S. senator, was appointed to the influential Judiciary Committee in January, tasked in part with vetting judicial nominees.
“As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I’ve worked hard to get a record number of President Donald J. Trump’s judicial nominees on the bench,” Ernst said, in an Aug. 8 Facebook post.
According to Ernst, since Trump took office in January 2017, 44 Circuit Court judges and 99 District Court judges were confirmed, in addition to two Supreme Court justices.
A Starting Line analysis of Senate votes show Ernst has voted for 100% of Trump’s nominees taken up this year by the full Senate, except in one instance when she was marked “Not Voting” during an April vote on a district judge nominee from Ohio.
Prior to Sen. Lindsey Graham’s takeover of the Judiciary Committee in January, Iowa’s senior senator, Charles Grassley, played a significant role in Republicans’ effort to remake the federal judiciary. Both Supreme Court justices confirmed under Trump, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, were shepherded through the Judiciary Committee by former chairman Grassley.
In Trump’s first 2 1/2 years as president, the Senate has confirmed 146 federal judges, compared to the 18 judicial nominees confirmed under former president Barack Obama and McConnell’s Republican-led Senate.
Though some of Trump’s nominees were holdovers from Obama’s administration, several of his personal selections for the court were deemed “Not Qualified” by the American Bar Association, and had a history of controversial beliefs.
Matthew Kacsmaryk, confirmed in June as a U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Texas, drew widespread repudiation from Democrats and LGBTQ activists who had tracked his opposition to equal legal protections for gay and transgender Americans.
A number of Trump nominees — Michael Truncale, U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Texas; Kenneth Lee, U.S. Circuit Judge for California’s Ninth Circuit; and Wendy Vitter, U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana — refused to comment on Supreme Court precedents during their Judiciary Committee hearings, including Brown v. Board of Education and the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling.
And in March, Neomi Rao was confirmed to fill Kavanaugh’s seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Though Ernst ultimately voted for Rao, she initially voiced concern over her collegiate writings about sexual assault.
In an op-ed for the Yale Herald, Rao asserted women could “avoid a potential date rape” by remaining “reasonably sober.”
“Unless someone made her drink undetectably strong or forced them down her throat, a woman, like a man, decides when and how much to drink,” Rao continued. “If she drinks to the point where she can no longer choose, well, getting to that point was part of her choice.”
According to the Des Moines Register, Ernst had a one-on-one meeting with Rao to clarify her position on sexual assault. Only then did Ernst, herself a survivor of sexual assault, vote to confirm Rao to the D.C. Circuit.
“She (Rao) had basically stated that was a long time ago, she was a young woman just trying to push back against liberals on campus,” Ernst said, according to the Register. “Now, as a mother, she does understand these are very serious situations.”
Ernst has made Republicans’ effort to shape the federal judiciary part of her re-election pitch, telling voters in June that “Senate Republicans have gotten to work delivering on some very critical promises to the American people, like confirming judges who will follow the Constitution … and making sure they do not legislate from the bench.”
As of Aug. 1, there are 22 judicial nominees awaiting floor votes in the Senate, six waiting to be reported out of the Judiciary Committee and seven on deck for committee hearings.
The Senate is expected to reconvene Sept. 9 for the second half of its 2019 session.
By Elizabeth Meyer
Photo by Julie Fleming