Trump to flip appeals court for first time

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Brief recap

  • Former attorney to Chris Christie, Paul Matey could be confirmed Tuesday to Third Circuit
  • Trump judicial push accelerates with another circuit court confirmation likely later this week

One of President Donald Trump’s biggest achievements since entering the White House – making the federal courts more conservative – crossed a major threshold Tuesday.

For the first time, he turned a federal appeals court previously dominated by Democratic presidents’ nominees into one with a majority of Republican presidents’ choices.

Senate confirmation of Paul Matey to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, with jurisdiction over Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, gave Trump and his GOP predecessors in the White House a 7-6 majority there. The Senate vote was 54-45, largely along party lines.

Matey, 48, a former top counsel to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, became Trump’s 35th appeals court nominee to reach the bench with seven more pending, continuing a record pace. The Senate also has confirmed 53 of Trump’s picks for federal district courts, with another 54 nominees pending. 

Democrats oppose Matey, specifically calling out his ties to Christie. They questioned him at his confirmation hearing about a variety of scandals surrounding the former Republican governor, including a controversial no-bid contract awarded for Hurricane Sandy cleanup.

Matey acknowledged that he provided counsel to Christie about the contract, but he declined to provide more details, citing attorney-client privilege.

He also denied any involvement in the “Bridgegate” scandal in which two Christie allies were convicted of conspiracy and fraud in connection with political retaliation against a mayor who refused to endorse Christie for re-election.

After leaving state government, Matey was senior vice president and general counsel at University Hospital in Newark from 2015-18.

Matey would be another Trump nominee confirmed without the support of both home-state senators, a newly developing trend that currently exposes the inability of Democrats in most cases to stop judicial nominations as the Senate’s minority party.

Matey clerked for Third Circuit Judge Robert Cowen and for Judge John C. Lifland of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. He’s also a former assistant U.S. attorney for the same district.

The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary rated Matey as “Qualified,” which is lower than its highest rating of “Well Qualified.” A minority of the committee’s members rated Matey as “Not Qualified.”

Matey is a member of the Federalist Society, an organization of conservatives and libertarians that has helped the Trump administration select judicial nominees.

The president’s goal of remaking the federal judiciary began in January 2017 with the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Gorsuch’s confirmation and that of Brett Kavanaugh last October have made the nation’s highest court more conservative.

The Senate also was poised to move further ahead Tuesday with the controversial nomination of Neomi Rao to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the nation’s second-most powerful tribunal. A final vote could occur later this week.

Rao, a potential future Supreme Court nominee, has drawn criticism for her actions as Trump’s “regulatory czar,” her lack of trial experience and, in particular, college-era writings that appeared to blame women along with men for date rape.

Trump’s 90 confirmed judges also have drawn criticism from Democrats and liberal interest groups because they are overwhelmingly white (92%) and male (76%).

At the critical appeals court level, where more than 50,000 cases are heard annually, Trump has replaced 23 judges named by Republican presidents and 12 named by Democrats. 

Dan Goldberg, legal director at the liberal Alliance for Justice, noted that many of the appeals court judges Trump has had confirmed filled vacancies that Senate Republicans refused to fill near the end of the Obama administration. In some cases, the Trump judges were opposed by home-state Democratic senators.

In addition to the Third Circuit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, with jurisdiction over Florida, Georgia and Alabama, offers conservatives hope. It has gone from having a solid majority of judges named by Democrats to a 6-6 tie.

Six other appeals courts have a majority of Democratic presidents’ nominees; four have a majority of Republican presidents’ nominees.

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