Trump takes aim at district court vacancies as he remakes judiciary

President Donald Trump. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: U.S. District Court of Western Pennsylvania, AP)
President Donald Trump. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: U.S. District Court of Western Pennsylvania, AP)

WASHINGTON — President Trump has utterly remade the federal judiciary, filling vacancies that had been held open by congressional Republicans during President Barack Obama’s eight years in office. Just two years into his own term, Trump has successfully installed two Supreme Court justices — something it took Obama eight years to do — and appointed 40 circuit court judges, who handle the all-important task of fielding appeals.

But in recent months, the battle over judges has moved to district court, the lowest of three major rungs of the federal judiciary and where most major cases — whether concerning guns or health care — begin (a few of those eventually end up at the Supreme Court, after the appeals process). So far, Trump has successfully appointed 64 district court judges, about the same number as Obama at this point in his first term.

Trump, however, is likely to make dozens more appointments in the coming months, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has made confirming conservative justices a top priority. Losing either the presidency or the Senate majority next year would effectively put an end to that project.

The focus on district courts is a matter of necessity. “There have to be vacancies in order to fill them,” says Mike Davis, a former top Senate Judiciary Committee aide to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who was chairman of that committee in the previous Congress. “President Trump, Chuck Grassley and Mitch McConnell did a phenomenal job of filling circuit court vacancies,” said Davis, who now runs the Article III Project, an organization that advocates for a conservative judiciary. The Trump administration now has only five circuit court vacancies to fill.

By contrast, 118 district court judgeships remain open. And so, on Wednesday, three more Trump district court nominees will troop up to Capitol Hill for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee: Charles Eskridge, for the Southern District of Texas, William Stickman IV for the Western District of Pennsylvania and Jennifer Wilson for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. In addition, the hearing will include one appeals court nominee, Peter Phipps, for the Third Circuit. Phipps was nominated by Trump and confirmed by the Senate as a district court judge last year.

All four of the nominees are white and only one is a woman, in general demographic keeping with the profile of a Trump judge. If confirmed, they will all have lifetime appointments to the federal bench. And since all of the nominees are relatively young, they will likely continue to exert influence on the courts for many years after Trump has left the Oval Office.

Of the four, the most problematic for the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee is Stickman, a 40-year-old lawyer in private practice in Pittsburgh. People familiar with deliberations of the committee’s staff say that Stickman could face tough questions over letters he wrote to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette some years ago.

In the fall of 2004, for example, right before that year’s presidential election, a woman named Beverly J. Koerber wrote a letter to the Post-Gazette about Democratic nominee John Kerry. In that letter, Koerber discussed the abortion debate in the context of the civilians killed in the Iraq War. Stickman responded with a letter of his own, giving insight into his views on abortion, which, if he still holds them, suggest a strong opposition to women’s reproductive rights.

Stickman’s letter, published on Oct. 29, made Iraq War comparisons of its own while criticizing “the abortion industry,” a phrase favored by the anti-abortion right. He acknowledged that civilian deaths were “tragic,” but drew a distinction between aborted “babies” and people who were, in Stickman’s words, killed by troops in the process of “liberating them from a murderous tyrant,” Saddam Hussein.

Stickman denied a “moral equivalence between the accidental deaths of Iraqis” and “the intentional deaths of many millions of babies.” He asserted that, “since Roe vs. Wade, more than 39 million babies have been killed by abortion.”

That wording is a clue to Stickman’s thinking on abortion. Most abortions in the United States occur before the 13th week of pregnancy, when the fetus is the size of a lemon. While debate continues over late-term abortion, 80 percent of Americans supported abortion in either some or all instances by the time Stickman wrote his letter, according to a Gallup tracking poll.

Stickman’s rhetoric is similar to what abortion opponents use today, with President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other Republicans increasingly arguing that Democrats support outright “infanticide.” At the same time, several states have passed bills that come close to outlawing abortion altogether. Such laws are intentionally provocative, inviting legal challenges that supporters hope to take to the Supreme Court, where they believe an increasingly conservative bench will ultimately strike down Roe v. Wade. Pennsylvania doesn’t have such a law, but a bill prohibiting terminating a pregnancy because of a diagnosis of Down syndrome has passed one house of the state legislature. As a district court judge, Stickman could find himself ruling on a challenge to that law.

Democratic groups have identified Stickman as a foe, even though they clearly recognize that the numbers are in his favor. “Sadly, Donald Trump has nominated yet another unsuitable person for a lifetime seat on the federal bench,” Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice, a group that advocates for a progressive judiciary, told Yahoo News. “William Stickman has made written statements that are disqualifying for an individual who aspires to be a federal judge, and he should not be permitted to sit in judgment of others in the Western District of Pennsylvania.”

Trump’s opponents have little choice but to pin their hopes of defeating Stickman on several pro-choice Republican women in the Senate, most notably Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the body.

Stickman’s opposition to abortion appears to be grounded in his religious faith. His biographical page on the website for his law firm Del Sole Cavanaugh Stroyd, describes him as an active church attendee.

A desire to defend traditional Christian values also figured into a letter Stickman wrote to the Post-Gazette in 2002. Early that year, the Boston Globe’s investigative “Spotlight” team had published the first of what would be a series of articles about priests in the Boston area that had sexually assaulted children in their care. Church elders had done virtually nothing to halt the abuse or punish the guilty priests.

The story naturally made big news in Pittsburgh, which in previous generations has welcomed Catholics from Ireland, Italy, Poland and elsewhere. But as others were grappling with the growing scandal — one that would eventually engulf 99 priests in Pittsburgh, though not until many years later — Stickman decided there was no scandal to speak of.

“Shame,” Stickman wrote in his letter, published on March 29, 2002. “The coverage of the scandal within the Catholic Church has been nothing less than shameful.” Calling the coverage “sensationalistic,” he expressed no regret over the abuses. Instead, he accused the Post-Gazette of “making stereotypical attacks on our clergy” and said that the newspaper “should apologize to the 98.2 percent of priests who have suffered due to one-sided coverage.”

Groups for survivors of sexual abuse expressed dismay at Stickman’s defense of the Catholic Church. Zach Hiner, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Stickman’s argument was “fallacious and emotional” because it “relies on incorrect statistics and whataboutism.” Hiner noted that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops “had identified in 2002 that at least 4% of clergy were abusive, more than double what Stickman was claiming.” That number, Hiner said, would rise to about 10 percent.

“That's not the kind of logic or argumentation that we should expect from our judicial nominees,” Hiner added. “Similarly, I would hope that a judicial nominee in the United States would consider the covering up of crimes against children more shameful than the coverage of those crimes.”

It is not known if and how Stickman’s views have changed since. In a brief telephone conversation with Yahoo News, Stickman said that he was unable to comment on his nomination and referred the matter to the White House. The White House declined to comment on his nomination, referring the matter to the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.

About a year later after sounding off on the Catholic Church, Stickman wrote to the Post-Gazette again. It was April 2003, and Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., had just made remarks that were widely deemed to be homophobic. “I have a problem with homosexual acts,” he told the Associated Press in an interview that month. Santorum said that if LGBT rights were expanded, “then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery.” He also compared gay sex to “man on child, man on dog.”

The comments were widely criticized as homophobic. Stickman rushed to the defense of Santorum, who, before winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, had been a congressman representing the Pittsburgh suburbs. Stickman wrote in the Post-Gazette that Santorum’s words had been “misconstrued by gay rights groups, power-hungry Democrats and the media in an obvious attempt to create a public outcry against him.” He did not explain how Santorum’s quote had been misinterpreted.

Stickman continued, “Even if the senator did equate homosexual intercourse with adultery, bigamy and incest, isn’t that his prerogative? Are we and the leaders whom we elect no longer allowed to disagree with the activities of certain groups?”

Even if Stickman’s views are well within the Republican mainstream — and are endorsed by millions of Americans — they represent just how far to the right Trump is shifting the judiciary. “William Stickman’s deeply held personal views on abortion and LGBTQ rights are inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Yahoo News.

“Given how open he’s been about expressing these views publicly, I don’t believe he can be fair and impartial in related cases,” Hirono continued. “Mr. Stickman’s nomination is yet another example of how Donald Trump is packing our courts with ideologically driven judges. Mr. Stickman should not be confirmed for a lifetime position on the federal bench.”

But Mike Davis, the Article III Project founder, dismissed those concerns as beside the point. “Mr. Stickman, 15 years ago, when he was in law school, had the same view on traditional marriage as former President Clinton, then-Senator Hillary Clinton, then-Senator Joe Biden and then-Senate candidate Barack Obama.” In other words, those views represented nothing remarkable, in Davis’s estimation.

Democrats will also likely have tough questions for Charles Eskridge, a Houston lawyer who is a favorite of the Federalist Society, the conservative organization that has been instrumental in guiding the Trump administration’s judicial policy. Eskridge, who has been nominated by Trump to the Southern District of Texas, has been a regular donor to Republican candidates for office, including to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who praised his nomination.

Democrats may well bring up a 2017 speech Eskridge gave to the Texas chapter of the Federalist Society, in which he praised the “heroic” effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Having failed to repeal the signature Obama law in Congress, Republicans have sought to have key provisions of the ACA overturned in court. But the prospect of having a jurist like Eskridge potentially helping do away with health coverage for millions could frighten some moderate Republicans, especially those in states where large segments of the population have benefited from the law’s expansion of Medicare services.

Phipps could also face opposition, since he has been a district court judge for less than a year. He is opposed by his home state senator, Bob Casey, a Democrat. Casey said last month that he did not believe that Phipps had had “sufficient experience or preparation” as a federal jurist. In addition, during the nomination hearing for his federal judgeship, Phipps declined to say that he agreed with the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 decision that desegregated the nation’s schools.

Despite these concerns, it is all but certain that all four nominees will advance out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and to the full Senate. There they will face a generally compliant Republican majority, which has already confirmed 112 Trump-nominated judges. Only nine judicial nominees have been rejected.


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