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Do Trump Judicial Nominees Raise Concerns About Courts' Integrity?

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals serves the western part of the country, including Washington state, and has several judgeship vacancies. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals serves the western part of the country, including Washington state, and has several judgeship vacancies. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
November 15, 2017

SEATTLE -- President Donald Trump is fulfilling his promise to reshape the judicial branch. But some of his nominations have legal experts concerned he could be putting the integrity of the courts at risk.

One of Trump's latest nominees for a federal court judgeship, Brett Talley, has never tried a case and has only practiced law for three years. But he's been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and is a Senate-majority vote away from a lifetime appointment.

Larry Shannon, government affairs director for the Washington State Association for Justice, said he believes Talley is unqualified.

"Just looking at the overall life and lack of legal experience, you know, you can't reach out and grab somebody to be a chief of surgery at a hospital who's never been in a surgical room,” Shannon said. "I mean, that's in essence what we've done here."

While lower court selections don't have the high profile of Supreme Court picks, Shannon said they are at least as important, if not more so. For instance, appeals courts have the the final say in about 60,000 cases a year, compared to roughly 80 cases at the Supreme Court.

The large number of lower court vacancies is, in part, because Senate Republicans shut down the confirmation process for President Barack Obama's nominees in 2015. President Trump is trying to fill those seats quickly, but the American Bar Association already has rated four of his picks "not qualified.”

Shannon said this guardrail, and a Senate process that traditionally weeds out the most extreme candidates, have eroded since the election.

"We're destroying the bipartisan nature of the judicial selection process,” he said. "That's always been how we've operated, and we operated that way in large part because of the need and the feeling that we've had to maintain the integrity of that process."

Shannon said he worries the political gamesmanship could become an unfortunate new feature of judicial nominations, regardless of which party is in power. But conservatives - including President Trump - have criticized judges in many courts for being too liberal.

Shannon said justice suffers when the courts become more polarized.

"If we lose our faith and trust in the judiciary, and the integrity of the judiciary to be a somewhat objective voice - interpreting and applying the law fairly and equally - if we lose that,” he said, "we've lost a fundamental glue that holds us together.”

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA