Six months and a political lifetime ago, presidential candidate Donald Trump launched his famous public attack on U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel.
“He’s a Mexican,” Trump said of the Indiana-born judge. “We’re building a wall between here and Mexico.” And so, Trump said, Curiel “is giving us very unfair rulings” in a civil fraud case against his defunct Trump University.
In one of his many campaign statements that went unexplained, Trump added at a rally: “Wouldn’t that be wild — if I am president and come back and do a civil case?”
The litigation then before Curiel has since been settled.
Now Trump gets to nominate judges to the federal bench.
And the 45th president will get more than his share of picks. As The Washington Post reported Monday, Trump will have more than 100 court slots to fill — in addition to the Supreme Court vacancy caused by Antonin Scalia’s death.
A number of those lower-court openings piled up because the Republican-controlled Senate and President Barack Obama couldn’t agree on candidate confirmations. With Trump taking over, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) gets to consider nominees who pass a conservative litmus test.
Trump is known to rely on family members for advice. He has a well-known sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, who is a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals.
President Ronald Reagan nominated Barry for U.S. District Court in New Jersey in 1983. President Bill Clinton promoted her to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in 1999.
Notably, a decision of hers in 2000 drew fire from anti-abortion activists. The ruling struck down a New Jersey law against late-term abortions.
She even issued a blistering opinion in the case targeting lawmakers who drafted the controversial measure.
“Indeed, we, as was the District Court, are left to wonder whether the drafters chose a path of deliberate ambiguity, coupled with public outrage based largely on misinformation, in an attempt to proscribe legitimate abortion practices,” Barry stated.
The Justice Department under Trump, of course, includes U.S. attorneys. Late last month the president-elect and his nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, got Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to agree to stay in his post.
Keeping Bharara has its ironies.
For one, the prosecutor came to the coveted position in 2009 from the office of Sen. Chuck Schumer — who’s soon to be his house’s Democratic minority leader.
Bharara was Schumer’s top aide on the Judiciary Committee. There, he played a key role in investigating a scandal over the Bush administration’s 2006 politically driven dismissals of U.S. attorneys.
Bharara also brought the case that convicted and imprisoned New York’s most powerful Republican — ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre.
But the targets have been from both parties. A Bharara corruption case also ended the career of Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Currently, his office is overseeing cases or investigations involving the administrations of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.
In Washington, the upcoming judgeship nominations leave a bitter taste for Democrats and a sense of opportunity for Republicans.
McConnell (R-Kentucky) can be expected to smooth the way for Trump appointees. Meanwhile Eric Schultz, an Obama spokesman, said GOP delays until now “have been shameful and will forever leave a stain on the United States Senate.”
Luckily, perhaps, for Curiel, the former arbiter in that Trump University case, federal judgeships are lifetime appointments. Nominated by Obama, he was confirmed in 2012 — which means the new president can’t retaliate by removing him. Still, Trump and his aides will be deciding who is proposed for promotions in the court system.