WASHINGTON – A divided Senate approved the nomination of a 38-year-old judge and ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to serve on a top federal appeals court on Thursday, despite Democrats’ objections that he’s inexperienced and biased against the Obama-era health care law.
The 51-42 vote in favor of Justin Walker’s confirmation was nearly along party lines. Maine Sen. Susan Collins was the only Republican to oppose Walker. Forty Democrats and independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with Democrats, opposed Walker. Seven senators were absent.
Walker, a protege of both McConnell and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, will be the youngest member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit when he joins the court in September. The court is widely considered the second-most powerful in the nation and frequently serves as a launching pad for a seat on the Supreme Court. Four current justices, including Kavanaugh, served on the D.C. circuit.
In a floor speech before Thursday's vote, McConnell called Walker “a widely admired legal expert and proven judge” who deserves quick promotion to the appeals court, less than a year after he began serving as a federal judge in western Kentucky.
“My fellow Kentuckians and I are sorry to part with this son of the Bluegrass, but mostly we are proud, because Judge Walker will be putting his legal brilliance and his exceptional judicial temperament to work not just for his home state, but for our entire nation, and in even more consequential ways,'' McConnell said.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said before the vote that McConnell should “go home to Kentucky” and tell voters "why he nominated someone who wants to repeal our health care law when the COVID crisis is hurting people there as it is everywhere else. In the middle of a national public health crisis, the Republican Senate majority is poised to confirm a judge who opposes our country’s health care law.''
Walker told senators last month that he will have an open mind on the Affordable Care Act, adding that he was writing as an academic and commentator when he criticized as “indefensible” a 2012 Supreme Court ruling upholding the law.
Walker, who was confirmed as a federal judge last October, declined a request by Senate Democrats to recuse himself on matters related to the health care law if confirmed to the appeals court.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, called Walker’s nomination a travesty and an affront to other, more qualified conservative judges. Walker’s confirmation could threaten the health of millions of Americans protected by the health care law, which the Trump administration is challenging in court, Durbin and other Democrats said.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Walker “does not have the experience we would expect of a nominee to the D.C. Circuit,” and noted that Walker told the committee he has not presided over a bench or jury trial.
Walker has also argued that “federal agencies have too much power when it comes to protecting the environment, consumers and the workplace,'' Feinstein said, and ”has made a number of overtly political remarks" even after becoming a judge.
McConnell, a longtime family friend who employed Walker as an intern in his Senate office, said that, in his short time as a federal judge, Walker has shown his intelligence and legal acumen. The GOP leader and other Republicans praised Walker's ruling that allowed a Kentucky church to hold drive-through Easter services, despite a stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
At his hearing last month, Walker defended comments he made during a March speech in which he lavished praise on Kavanaugh, who was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 2018 after a bitter partisan fight over allegations of sexual assault and other claims. Walker clerked for Kavanaugh when he was on the D.C. appeals court.
“In Kavanaugh’s America, we will not surrender while you wage war on our work, or our cause, or our hope, or our dream,″ Walker said in the speech, which was attended by McConnell, Kavanaugh and other conservative luminaries.
Walker drew a “Not Qualified” rating from the American Bar Association when Trump nominated him last year to be a federal judge in Kentucky. The group changed its rating just before the May 6 hearing, calling Walker “Well Qualified” to serve on the appeals court.
The group cited Walker’s experience as a clerk to Kavanaugh and Kennedy and his service as a trial judge. Walker, a graduate of Duke University and Harvard Law School, also worked as a lawyer in Louisville and Washington.
More than 200 groups, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP and the National Council on Jewish Women, oppose Walker’s nomination, citing his record against expanding access to health care and against safeguards for the environment, consumers and the workplace.