WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal judge who is a protege of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is too inexperienced to sit on a powerful federal appeals court in Washington, Democratic lawmakers said on Wednesday.
Democratic opposition to President Donald Trump’s nomination of Justin Walker to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit coalesced as the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee began the judge’s confirmation hearing.
“After serving just six months as a district court judge he has now been nominated to the D.C. Circuit,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee. “In his short time on the bench, Judge Walker, just 37 years old, has had virtually none of the experience one would expect of a district court judge before elevation to the circuit.”
Walker, a former academic and a federal judge in Kentucky since October, is close to McConnell. He was also a vocal ally of Kavanaugh during his confirmation battle in the Senate in 2018.
After Trump, a Republican, nominated Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Walker frequently appeared on cable TV, including Fox News, talking up the nominee’s conservative credentials.
“Justice Kavanaugh is a friend and a mentor,” Walker said during Wednesday’s hearing.
Walker defended his qualifications, saying “there is a long and rich tradition of academics being nominated” to federal appellate courts.
Walker would replace Thomas Griffith, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush and has announced that he is retiring.
Although based in Kentucky, where he has taught at the University of Louisville’s law school, Walker has Washington ties. He clerked for Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit, where Kavanaugh served for 12 years. He also clerked for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who Kavanaugh replaced in 2018.
If approved by the Judiciary Committee, Walker’s nomination would go to the full Republican-controlled Senate for a vote.
The D.C. Circuit is considered the second most powerful court in the country, in part because it handles many high-stakes challenges to federal regulations. Four of the current nine justices on the Supreme Court were previously D.C. Circuit judges.
The Senate convened in Washington for the first time in nearly six weeks on Monday, despite concern it might put lawmakers and staff at risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.
With Washington still under a stay-at-home order, lawmakers were advised by the congressional physician to wear masks, stay six feet (2 meters) apart and limit the number of staff on Capitol Hill. Some senators joined the hearing via videoconference.
“I think it is very important that the Senate demonstrate that we can function, much as many other people in the economy and our daily life are functioning,” said John Cornyn, a top Senate Republican who came to Washington for the hearing.
Democratic senators said the hearing should not have been prioritized and that their time would be better spent addressing the pandemic, which has killed more than 71,000 people in the United States.
Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Paul Simao
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