A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill Straub: We have to hope ‘arc of moral universe’ continues to bend toward justice, despite Trump

WASHINGTON – It may be hard to believe in this age of hyper-partisanship but President Trump has somehow managed to nominate individuals to the federal bench that were so godawful that even the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee blanched.

The headliner of this latest disaster is a rather unfortunate fellow named Matthew Petersen, nominated by el Presidente to fill a lifetime slot on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, looking to step up from his position as a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission.

During his confirmation hearing, Petersen showed he was woefully ignorant in regard to the simplest of courtroom procedures, the sort of thing a 10-year-old could absorb simply by watching a couple reruns of “Law and Order.” The performance proved so woeful that Petersen asked Trump to withdraw his nomination before the panel controlled by the GOP could tell him to get lost.

Matthew Spencer Petersen

But Petersen isn’t the only loser. There was Brett Talley, up for a federal district court seat in Alabama – yes, the same great state that gave us Roy Moore – who had never tried a case or filed a motion in federal court. Talley, who listed ghost-hunting among his extracurricular activities, was declared unqualified to serve as a judge by the American Bar Association, essentially because he had as much business sitting on the bench as fellow ghostbuster Bill Murray. Maybe less.

Incredibly, Talley survived Judiciary Committee scrutiny in a party-line vote but Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA, and several other panel members prevailed on the prez to dump the nominee after it was determined that he had made what might be determined several provocative comments over the internet – including one that seemed to be defending the Ku Klux Klan.

Apparently, it’s just too hard to find judicial material in the Cotton State.

One more for good measure – Jeff Mateer, up for a district court job in Texas with the backing of none other than Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, was summarily let go by the administration after it was learned that he once described transgender children as part of “Satan’s plan” and that same-sex marriage could lead to polygamy and bestiality.

Petersen, Talley and Mateer are just examples of the sort of federal judges the Trump administration is endeavoring to foist upon an unsuspecting public. While everyone is paying attention to dubious tax cut legislation and other follies much too long to list, the president of these United States is in the process of tearing the judiciary asunder.

Let’s admit that the nation’s federal court system isn’t perfect. It has too often subjugated African-Americans and women while siding with corporations against wronged consumers. At the same time, it must be said the judiciary is probably the finest in the world, one of the few remaining entities standing between the general public and tyranny, and has generally served as a progressive element albeit with many missteps along the way.

Trump has shown that justice means very little to him and he is enthusiastically turning the courts over to ideologues with a far-right bent whose sole desire is to maintain the oligarchy it is busily constructing. Vetting obviously is a small detail worth ignoring in the Trump nomination process, as long as picks remain enthusiastic over the opportunity to play footsie with the rich and powerful.

It appears that almost all of the administration’s judicial choices must pass muster with The Federalist Society, an ultra-conservative legal outfit that wishes for nothing more than returning to the days of Chief Justice Roger Taney, who has been a blot on the American conscience for better than 150 years.

Brett Talley

Riding shotgun in this thoroughly revolting process is, of course, our old pal, Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root ‘n Branch’’ McConnell, of Louisville, who doing everything within his power to advance Trump’s growing list of abominations. It was Mitch who blocked consideration of then-President Barack Obama’s nomination to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, thus paving the way for Trump’s choice, Justice Neil Gorsuch, by changing Senate rules midstream, prohibiting Democrats from launching a filibuster.

Ol’ Root ‘n Branch is also endeavoring to deep-six the “blue slip” tradition, which essentially allows lawmakers to toss impediments to district judge appointments in their home states. The next time you hear McConnell referred to as a Senate traditionalist with high regard for the chamber’s customs and rituals, remember that.

According to Axios, a news and information website, Leonard Leo, a top Trump adviser on judicial appointments, said quite accurately that McConnell places “an enormously high priority on the confirmation of judges.”

“His thinking behind that is that the federal judiciary has an enormous impact on the future direction of our country in ways that many pieces of legislation and public policy initiatives don’t,” Leo told reporter Jonathan Swan.

McConnell played a key role in at least one unforgivable Trump appointment thus far, dispatching far right wingnut Judge John K. Bush, of Louisville, the former president of the local branch of the Federalist Society, to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

A report issued by the Alliance for Justice noted of Bush, “In hundreds of blog posts as well as speeches and other writing, he has denigrated the rights of others and has used hostile and crass language to make personal attacks on people with whom he disagrees. He has a long history of firm adherence to an ultraconservative political ideology. He has demonstrated that he lacks appropriate judicial temperament, raising serious concerns about his ability to approach cases neutrally, setting aside his own personal views.’’

Examples? According to AFJ, Bush gave a talk to a private Louisville club “in which, stunningly, he chose, according to his written notes, to recite and apparently condone a quote by another author that employs an anti-gay slur: ‘I come here every year, and let me tell you one thing I’ve learned — this is no town to be giving people the impression you’re some kind of faggot.’ Bush also has likened a woman’s right to decide whether to have an abortion to slavery, peddled discredited conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama, called for Nancy Pelosi to be “gag[ged]” when she made comments he disagreed with, and decried a change to passport forms that accounted for same-sex parents.”

Jeff Mateer

The story suggested that Bush assumed the seat on the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated by Judge Boyce Martin. He actually took the place of Judge Danny Boggs, who took senior status in February 2017.

Obama finally nominated Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Lisabeth Tabor Hughes, who was appointed to the commonwealth’s high court by Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican. McConnell and Paul refused to return their blue slips showing their disapproval and stopping the process. Blue slips, you’ll recall is what ol’ Root ‘n Branch is now trying to do away with.

It should be noted, in fairness, that two lawyers nominated for district judgeships in the commonwealth by Trump, Rebecca Grady Jennings in the Western District and Clara Horn Boom, who will swing between the East and West, are well regarded and highly qualified. Both nominations were reported out of committee in Dec. 7 by voice vote, indicating easy approval.

Kentucky has, in its history, been blessed with good federal judges and, hopefully, Boom and Jennings will follow in that tradition. Bush, on the other hand, is more likely to draw comparisons to Pigmeat Markham in his famous “Here come da judge’’ skit.

Regardless, the record is clear.

When Martin Luther King Jr. said “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’’ he had not yet encountered Trump and McConnell.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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