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Expertise Needed: A Case Against Justin Walker’s Nomination

Trent Dougherty, May 6, 2020

The United States Senate, despite ongoing public health concerns amid the global pandemic,  rushed back to work this week. Are they planning to debate important emergency legislation to protect American lives and livelihoods during this trying time? Maybe, but that is certainly not all they’ll do. The Senate is using its time back in the Capitol to hold a confirmation hearing for judicial nominees. 

One particularly controversial nomination centers on the nomination of Justin Walker. He was confirmed to a Kentucky Federal District Court in October 2019, and now, six months later, is slated for an elevation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The controversy over Walker’s nomination focuses on his experience and expertise. Specifically, opponents to Walker’s nomination point out that he was deemed unqualified to serve as a district court judge by the American Bar Association (ABA) just six months ago and has extremely limited legal experience. In a report opposing his nomination, Alliance for Justice analyzed Mr. Walker’s decisions, writings, and scores of appearances on Fox News. They concluded:

  • He has extreme views on unchecked executive power. 
  • He wants to weaken gun safety measures, including bans on assault weapons. 
  • He has shown contempt for public education. 
  • And, he would use his position on the powerful D.C. Circuit to weaken civil rights, worker, consumer, and environmental protections.  

Just last week, our colleagues at the League of Conservation Voters, issued a letter to the members of the U.S. Senate strongly opposing Walker’s nomination, stating that “Walker’s limited academic writings demonstrate his desire to use a position on the court to undermine critical environmental and public health protections, siding with… big corporate interests rather than serving as an unbiased judge.” 

During this pandemic, we are all learning (or at least relearning) a lot of lessons about the importance of expertise.  When making decisions impacting the lives and livelihoods of millions of American, we need experts to make those decisions. A life-time appointment to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is just that: a position where expertise matters.

The D.C. Circuit is considered the second most powerful court in the country. It handles some of the nation’s most complex and sensitive litigation. It oversees the actions of federal agencies on topics like the environment, consumer protections, workers’ rights, banking regulations, and other vital issues. The judges there touch the lives of every American. Furthermore, it is a pipeline to the Supreme Court. Four of the current nine justices on the Supreme Court—Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Brett Kavanaugh—were previously judges on the D.C. Circuit. 

The D.C. Circuit Court is particularly important to environmental issues for the whole country. Specifically, the Court has handled issues that challenge the authority of the Trump Administration to roll back minimum protections. During the latter part of 2019, in the D.C. Circuit Court heard cases involving challenges to:

  • the approval of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project running through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, and PennEast Pipeline running to New York City; 
  • the Trump administration’s decision to rethink Obama-era clean car standards designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions; and 
  • the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards revisions for coal-fired power plants.

Now more than ever, we understand the importance of our federal courts as a backstop against the actions, inaction, and injustices that affect our air, water, and natural spaces, as well as the health and safety of our communities. We cannot ignore the importance of expertise on the highest courts hearing our environment’s most important cases. The Senate should take heed of this moment in our history and take a long look as to who is qualified and will best serve in the nation’s second highest court.

We deserve judges who understand good governance and will use their power to protect and uphold the environmental laws of the United States. Justin Walker is not one of those people.