NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Janai Nelson said it was an “insult to African Americans” when President Trump nominated Thomas Farr to a federal district court bench in North Carolina last year. The Republican attorney’s fingerprints were all over efforts to suppress and sideline voters of color in North Carolina, and he was linked to a campaign committee for segregationist Sen. Jesse Helms accused of intimidating Black voters in the late 1980s with postcards suggesting they would be arrested at the polls.
Fortunately, Farr’s anti-civil rights record came to light just in time for a few Republican defectors to sink his nomination, thanks to Senate rules allowing up to 30 hours for debate on presidential nominees, according to Nelson. Now that Senate Republicans have voted to drastically change those confirmation rules, Nelson worries extremists like Farr could gain lifetime appointments to federal courts as Trump seeks to keep a major campaign promise to his base and push the judiciary further right.
“Some of the administration’s most egregious picks for the courts, like Thomas Farr, have been stopped because of concerns that were unearthed in this critical final debate period,” Nelson told reporters on Wednesday. “This move will diminish each senator’s opportunity to sufficiently vet candidates for the federal bench, effectively obliterating the constitutional obligation to ‘advise and consent’ on judicial nominees.”
Despite pleas from civil rights groups, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked the “nuclear option” on Wednesday, allowing a simple majority of Republicans to reduce debate on dozens of presidential nominees from up to 30 hours to only two. The Senate voted 51-48 along party lines to approve the new rules, which limit debate on Trump nominees to federal district courts as well as dozens of sub-Cabinet administrative posts. Nominations to top courts and Cabinet positions are exempt.
“Two hours for a lifetime appointment with huge impacts on people’s lives is unacceptable; it’s ridiculous, it’s a mockery of how this institution should work,” Democratic Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Before the vote, McConnell and other top Republicans blamed a backlog of low-profile administrative nominations on obstructionist Democrats. However, Democrats said Trump and McConnell have already used the GOP’s majority in the Senate to pack federal courts with judges at a record pace, even as lawmakers blocked confirmations for several nominees whose young age and hard-right ideology appeared to be their only judicial qualification.
“Mitch McConnell has indeed prioritized the confirmation of federal judges, and he continues to try to mislead the American people about what is happening in the judicial nominations process,” said Dan Goldberg, legal director of the Alliance for Justice, in an email. “In the first two years of his presidency, President Trump outpaced President Obama’s federal judicial confirmations, largely because of Republican tactics of gutting rules and norms to speed through virtually every Trump judicial nominee.”
Civil rights groups said Wednesday’s rule change would speed up confirmations and help Republicans conceal the controversial records that many Trump nominees bring with them, allowing conservatives to circumvent Congress and push an agenda that voters across the country would not support.
“By rigging the system, Republicans are consolidating their power and directly jeopardizing our civil and human rights,” said Kristine Lucius, executive vice president for policy at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in a press conference before the vote.
A coalition of civil rights, reproductive justice and LGTBQ groups are drawing attention to Trump’s nominees with troubling records. For example, Wendy Vitter, a lawyer from New Orleans and wife of David Vitter, the former senator who was wrapped in scandal, has attempted to distance herself from a history of pro-life activism that includes a conference where unscientific claims about abortion were made.
“Senate Republicans are trying to speed up the process for anti-abortion nominees like Wendy Vitter, who will decide on our health and rights for a lifetime,” said Cecelia Thomas, legislative manager at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a press conference.
And then there is Howard Nielson and Matthew Kacsmaryk, two Trump nominees that civil rights groups say have a history of anti-LGBTQ activism. Both men have argued against same-sex marriage rights in the past, and Kacsmaryk has shown particular animus toward transgender people, describing trans identities as “a delusion,” according to Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality.
“This president has shown he has no respect for the courts unless they serve his political ends and his bigoted agenda,” Tobin said.
The list goes on. While Trump promised his base that he would pack the courts with social conservatives who oppose abortion and LGBTQ rights, civil rights advocates say Republicans in Congress may live to regret Wednesday’s rule change. Trump appointees could spark public backlash if they make regressive rulings from the bench, and if the Democrats regain control of the Senate, they can use the new debate limits to their advantage in the future.
Correction: The original version of the article incorrectly identified Janai Nelson as an NAACP attorney. Nelson is the associate-director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, which was originally founded by the NAACP but has been a separate organization since 1957.