Trump Elevates Unqualified Judge as a Reward for Defending Kavanaugh

Mitch McConnell gives a thumbs-up.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has pushed through Donald Trump’s judicial nominees at a record clip, gives a thumbs-up after speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate on March 25. Win McNamee/Getty Images

In March, while Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was scrambling to reach a deal with the White House on a coronavirus relief package, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was missing in action. He was not working on his own proposal or whipping votes for the Trump administration’s. Rather, McConnell was in Louisville, Kentucky, with Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to attend the swearing-in ceremony for Justin Walker, a close ally of both men, to a federal district court. The American Bar Association gave Walker a rare “Not Qualified” rating, yet the majority leader persuaded the Senate to confirm the nominee on a party-line vote in October. Walker took his seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky that same month, but delayed his formal swearing-in ceremony until March. The event served as a victory lap for McConnell as well as a break from his duties addressing the burgeoning pandemic.

Walker, 37, has done nothing of note during his five months on the district court. Nonetheless, on Friday, Donald Trump nominated him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the second-most-powerful court in the country. With this unusually fast promotion, Trump is elevating another partisan hack who will faithfully implement the Republican Party platform from the bench for decades to come.

It’s no surprise that the ABA rated Walker “Not Qualified,” since his chief qualifications seem to be his political work, Washington connections, and longtime membership in the Federalist Society. Walker graduated from Harvard Law School in 2009, clerked for Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit, then for Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. The ABA found it “challenging to determine how much of his ten years since graduation from law school has been spent in the practice of law,” and he has never served as lead or co-counsel on any case, civil or criminal.

Why, then, did Walker get tapped for the bench in the first place? After Kennedy announced his retirement, Walker sprang into action to lobby on Kavanaugh’s behalf. Walker made 162 media appearances between June 27, 2018, and Oct. 6, 2018, to defend his former boss, many on Fox News. He consistently praised Kavanaugh in political terms. For instance, he declared that Kavanaugh “is a fighter for conservative legal principles who will not go wobbly,” a dig at Chief Justice John Roberts’ occasional deviations from the GOP party line. He touted Kavanaugh’s record “on conservative issues like Second Amendment, executive power, and EPA regulations.” He predicted that Kavanaugh’s confirmation would usher in “an end to affirmative action, an end to successful litigation about religious displays and prayers, an end to bans on semi-automatic rifles, and an end to almost all judicial [decisions allowing abortion].” And, noting that Trump is “a big fan of generals and warriors,” Walker said, “I think Judge Kavanaugh fits that bill, you know, if you imagine Judge Kavanaugh storming a beach, his military uniform’s torn and tattered from fighting for conservative legal principles.”

After Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault in 1982, Walker grew even more overtly partisan. He condemned Senate Democrats’ desire for an FBI investigation as a “farce” and lobbed personal attacks at Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He mocked Sen. Richard Blumenthal for “claim[ing] to be a Vietnam War veteran, falsely,” a favored Trump line, and suggested that the FBI should investigate Sen. Dianne Feinstein instead. He announced that Ford must be “mistaken” about her account of the experience. And when Fox News host Ainsley Earhardt asked him what Democrats’ next “line of attack” might be, he responded: “Oh my goodness. You know, Ainsley, there are limits to my imagination.”

Shortly before this publicity blitz, Walker told McConnell he was interested in a federal judgeship. Days after Kavanaugh’s confirmation, he brought up this possibility with Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee. Eight months later, Trump nominated him to a Kentucky district court. And now, just weeks after Walker’s swearing-in ceremony for that position, Trump and McConnell seek to elevate him to the D.C. Circuit, which hears frequent challenges to federal laws and regulations. According to the Washington Post, both Kennedy and Kavanaugh recommended Walker for the vacancy. If confirmed, he will replace conservative George W. Bush appointee Thomas Griffith. McConnell has been privately asking Republican-appointed judges to retire soon so Trump can appoint their replacements; it is unclear if Griffith stepped down at his prodding.

There is little chance that Senate Republicans will reject Walker’s nomination given that they’ve already put him on a lower court and routinely confirm unqualified ideological extremists to the bench. Once on the D.C. Circuit, Walker will serve alongside fellow Trump judges Neomi Rao and Gregory Katsas. (He will not alter the ideological balance of the court, which is fairly liberal.) Rao has already distinguished herself as an unapologetic partisan who tirelessly runs interference for the president who appointed her, and Katsas has joined her crusade to shield Trump from oversight. With colleagues like Rao and Katsas by his side, Walker will fit right in.