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Trump And The Federal Judiciary


So far, President Trump has had only limited success with Congress. But he has made remarkable strides toward changing the courts.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The judge story is an untold story. Nobody wants to talk about it. But when you think about it - Mitch and I were saying - that has consequences 40 years out, depending on the age of the judge.

SIMON: Trump has nominated 59 federal judges so far. The pace is breakneck actually, unmatched since the Nixon era nearly 50 years ago. We're joined now by Joyce White Vance. She served as United States attorney for the Northern District of Alabama for eight years under President Obama. She joins us from the studios of WBHM in Birmingham.

Thanks very much for being with us.

JOYCE WHITE VANCE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Recognizing you served in a democratic - under a Democratic administration, do you notice any kind of ideological profile in President Trump's nominees so far?

VANCE: I think it's difficult to cast a broad brush when you look at nominees. Many of President Trump's judicial nominees, like those in administrations beforehand, are people who are well-qualified. And I think it's important to say that. They're getting support from people who are both Democrats and Republicans. But increasingly in this administration - and more so in in this administration than others - there is the perception that there are many judicial nominees who are ideologues, people who will not set aside their personal beliefs when they put on the robe and sit at the bench and judge the law.

And so we're seeing the American Bar Association, which has vetted judges for administrations and issues reports on those judges before their nomination proceedings - a number of the Trump nominees have received an unqualified rating. And that's extraordinary. It's virtually unheard of. But I have seen reports that suggest that these are judges who are unable to set aside their deeply held social agendas, who will not be able to be objective, who will not respect legal precedent. And that's troubling and should be troubling to all of us.

TRUMP: And what about the idea - if I might ask you, Ms. Vance - that Democrats, for example, wouldn't sit still if someone - for a judge that was nominated to the federal judiciary who ruled against abortion rights, for example.

VANCE: So abortion is always such a difficult conversation to have. In a legal context, though, we have law that gives us guidance. And what we expect from our federal judges is that they will follow the law, whether they agree with it or disagree with it personally. And I'll give you a great example.

My father-in-law was a federal judge, and he was personally against the death penalty. He sat as a judge on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Alabama, Georgia and Florida, and he heard many death penalty cases. And I would listen to him talking after he had made those decisions and they were public. And he would talk about how he struggled with the facts in the case and whether or not the legal standard for applying the death penalty was met. But I never heard him interject his personal opposition to the death penalty in those decisions. That's really the kind of integrity that we should expect from our judges on hard issues like abortion and on the more mundane, more pedestrian issues that they consider every day.

SIMON: So far, apparently 91 percent of President Trump's nominees are white, and 81 percent are male. Now, this is according to an analysis by The Associated Press. In this day and age, do you have to go out of your way - and I'll be blunt about it - do you have to exercise bigotry to appoint so many white males?

VANCE: I think we should be blunt about it. It's a disturbing trend. Many of these judicial nominees are highly qualified people. I don't think anyone would quibble with them as individuals. But the overall numbers are deeply troubling. There are many women, people of color, people from the LGBTQ community at the height of the legal profession. It would be easy - in every state in this country - to find qualified, diverse candidates. And so at some point, you have to say, why are we seeing predominantly white male nominations? It looks deliberate. Is it racism? Is it sexism? Is it simply an outmoded effort to have people who look like those who are now in power populate the ranks of the judiciary?

SIMON: Joyce White Vance, former U.S. attorney under President Obama, at WBHM in Birmingham - thanks so much for being with us.

VANCE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.