Trump nominates 16 judges as Democrats look ahead to Supreme Court fight

(CNN) — There are issues that have deeply divided President Donald Trump and conservatives during the first turbulent months since his inauguration.

The judiciary is not one of them.

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch is a clean win. And lawyers inside and outside of the administration are working to vet potential conservative nominees, fill vacancies and ensure that the appellate bench is deep in case another Supreme Court vacancy arises.

As such on Thursday, the President announced 16 more nominees — including his own deputy White House counsel — for lower court seats.

Democrats, for their part, are on full alert, aware that any nominee who comes through the doors of Senate judiciary committee could one day return for a Supreme Court seat. They are readying themselves for the fight, especially for those on Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees.

Deputy W.H. counsel nominated for key post

Gregory G. Katsas is up for a seat on the most powerful federal appeals court in the country: the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. The court is just blocks from the Supreme Court and frequently hears cases concerning government agency actions, such as with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Katsas is a former clerk of Justice Clarence Thomas and a veteran of George W. Bush’s Justice Department. He’s also an alumnus of Jones Day, a powerhouse law firm that has populated many positions in the Trump administration.

But it’s his time at the White House that is likely to trigger the most searching questions during his confirmation hearing. He’s been the right hand man to White House Counsel Donald McGahn and the two have grappled with critical issues such as Trump’s travel ban, emoluments and DACA.

“Greg Katsas has a long an illustrious career both in government and private practice and is a widely respected Supreme Court advocate,” said Carrie Severino of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, herself a former Thomas clerk. “While I expect the Democrats will try to put partisan politics first, it’s hard to overlook his impressive qualifications and his commitment to the rule of law.”

Eyes on Senate judiciary committee

Controversial hearings before the Senate judiciary committee are nothing new and for years both sides have accused the other of using various procedural tactics to block nominees.

As things stand now, Democrats who haven’t forgotten that former President Barack Obama’s last Supreme Court nominee was denied a vote — are looking hard at Trump’s early nominees for lower court vacancies. They are particularly interested in individuals that were also included on Trump’s list of potential nominees for the Supreme Court that he announced during the campaign.

Gorsuch, of course, made the final cut. But the administration is working to move up some judges on that list from district and state courts to appellate seats.

So far, from Trump’s original list, Judge Amul Thapar has been one of the six judges confirmed. He now sits on the sixth Circuit.

Christopher Kang, Obama’s former deputy counsel, pushes back on the notion that Democrats are obstructing anything.

“The reason that there are so many vacancies now, is historic Republican obstruction during the last two years of President Obama’s presidency. Republicans allowed the fewest confirmation since President Truman,” he said. “The Senate has confirmed more judges at this point since President Carter, which is even more troubling given how extreme these nominees are and that some of them were on President Trump’s short list for the Supreme Court.”

Kang said he is referring to nominees like Justice Joan Larsen of the Michigan Supreme Court. On Wednesday, the Judiciary Committee held hearings for Larsen, a former clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia who is also up for a seat on the sixth Circuit.

During the hearing, Democratic senators seemed to forget at times she was up for a lower court position, not the Supreme Court. Or maybe they saw it as a warm-up round.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, asked her for her views on Roe v. Wade. She looked puzzled: “I don’t want to make any commitment to an office where I haven’t even been nominated,” she said.

Then he asked her about the fact that she was on Trump’s short list.

She assured the senator that she had no idea how her name got on the list and said that no one had asked her for her opinion of a particular case.

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken also announced this week that he would not return a so-called “blue slip” for David Stras. Also on Trump’s list, he has been nominated for a seat on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Blue slips are a Senate tradition meant to encourage the involvement of home state senators in the picking process.

Franken’s complaint? He was worried that Stras, a former law clerk for Thomas, would “be a deeply conservative jurist in the mold of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.”

Franken criticized the White House for not consulting him in a meaningful way.

In a statement, he said he had hoped “in recognition of our different views, President Trump would work with me to identify a consensus candidate — a nominee whose experience demonstrates an ability to set aside rigid beliefs in favor of finding common ground,” he said.