Jurisprudence

The Biden-McConnell Deal to Make an Anti-Abortion Advocate a Federal Judge Is Still On

New details of the controversial Kentucky compromise that has enraged Democrats.

Mitch McConnell grins.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Joe Biden struck a deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to nominate Chad Meredith, a Republican anti-abortion advocate, to a federal judgeship on the Eastern District of Kentucky, Slate has confirmed. Under the arrangement, Meredith would take the seat currently occupied by Judge Karen Kaye Caldwell, a George W. Bush nominee. Caldwell submitted her move to senior status on June 22, which, once complete, will allow Meredith to take the seat. A lawyer with connections to the Kentucky governor’s office who is familiar with the agreement told Slate that Caldwell conditioned her move upon the confirmation a successor—specifically, the conservative Meredith. In exchange, McConnell will allow Biden to nominate and confirm two U.S. Attorneys to Kentucky.

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The deal has prompted fury from Democrats since it was first reported by the Louisville Courier Journal’s Andrew Wolfson and Joe Sonka on Wednesday. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, confirmed the planned nomination at a Thursday press conference. Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth also confirmed the White House’s intent to nominate Meredith in an interview with Slate on Friday. Yarmuth described the agreement as “indefensible” and said he wrote “the strongest text message I have ever written to anybody” to a contact at the White House expressing his “outrage.”

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Beshear and Yarmuth were especially frustrated because they had intended to submit potential nominees as soon as vacancy arose on the court. The White House was aware of this plan, but did not inform them that Caldwell planned to take senior status. As a result, Beshear and Yarmuth had no opportunity to make recommendations. Instead, the Biden administration coordinated with McConnell to tee up Meredith’s nomination once Caldwell announced her intent to leave the seat. According to Slate’s source in Kentucky, McConnell agreed, in exchange, to stop blocking Democrats’ preferred nominees for U.S. Attorney in the state. McConnell has sought to place his own allies in these positions—including prosecutor Thomas B. Wine, who as the Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney refused to charge the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor.

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“I understand how brutally manipulative Mitch is,” Yarmuth told Slate, “but at some point you have to stand up to him. You have to just confront him and say, ‘no, we’re not gonna appoint your people. We’re not gonna let Mitch McConnell appoint judges and other federal officials in a Democratic administration.’”

Meredith is an especially controversial nominee because of his close ties with Matt Bevin, the former Republican governor. He played an integral role in the controversial pardons that Bevin issued after losing reelection in 2019. Most notably, the former governor pardoned Patrick Baker, a man convicted of homicide whose family hosted a political fundraiser for Bevins. U.S. Attorneys later retried Baker in federal court; he was once again convicted by a jury and sentenced to nearly four decades in prison. Meredith assisted Bevins with pardons in his capacity as legal counsel to the governor, recommending which applicants merited clemency. He then withheld records relating to these pardons from the Beshear administration. The Trump administration considered nominating Meredith to a federal judgeship but dropped the plans in 2020 following the pardon controversy, as the Louisville Courier Journal reported at the time.

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Alarmingly for Democrats, Meredith also defended Kentucky’s anti-abortion legislation, including a law that forced patients to undergo an ultrasound and listen to audio of the fetal “heartbeat” before terminating a pregnancy. Meredith prevailed at the court of appeals. He also defended a law requiring abortion providers to secure “transfer agreements” with hospitals, an onerous burden on clinics with no health benefit to patients. The appeals court upheld that statute, as well.

Presidents routinely strike deals to nominate a package of judges to district courts that includes individuals put forth by each party. Even President Donald Trump nominated some moderate district court judges favored by Senate Democrats, who, as a compromise, voted to confirm the president’s far-right nominees. But Senate Republicans would not have even considered a nominee with a strong record of pro-choice advocacy. When Trump named Michael Bogren, who was put forward with bipartisan approval, to a district court, GOP Sen. Josh Hawley tanked the nomination—solely because Bogren had defended a city’s LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinance while in private practice. Hawley angrily accused Bogren of being anti-Catholic in an act of baseless assassination. Even the Federalist rose to Bogren’s defense, but it didn’t matter. The White House pulled his nomination.

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It is impossible to imagine a Republican-controlled Senate confirming a Democratic judicial nominee with a meaningful record of reproductive rights advocacy. In fact, Biden has conspicuously avoided nominating abortion rights lawyers for fear of triggering a GOP backlash; they are dramatically underrepresented among his judicial appointments. Now, however, Biden is poised to send Meredith’s nomination to a Democratic-controlled Senate—in the wake of a catastrophic Supreme Court decision overruling Roe v. Wade.

It remains unclear whether he will go through with the planned nomination. This episode marks Biden’s first major rift over judges with Democrats, who have so far been pleased with the president’s nominees, if not the pace of nominations. On Friday, Yarmuth told Slate that, according to his White House contact, the president “is aware of my concern and the governor’s concern,” but has not yet responded. The congressman added, of Meredith: “This is a bad appointment for Kentucky. It’s a bad appointment for the federal courts. This guy is aligned with a Federalist Society. He represents everything that is anathema to Democrats.”

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