In the years since, the view that federal government powers should be sharply curtailed has been central to his legal work. Schwartz, 36, has recently worked as a lawyer on controversial efforts that would have severely restricted the voting rights of African Americans in North Carolina and bathroom rights of transgender students in Virginia.
In 2015 and 2016, he sued the government multiple times while working at Cause of Action Institute, a tax-exempt group affiliated with the conservative Koch network and that seeks to curb the authority of federal agencies, according to legal and tax filings. “There are lots of circumstances today in America where agencies of the federal government exercise their discretion in ways that are terrible for personal liberty, for economic freedoms,” he said in a radio interview at the time.
Schwartz is among a growing cadre of conservative legal activists selected by President Trump to serve on the federal bench, part of the administration’s campaign to move the judiciary to the right. The Republican-controlled Senate has confirmed two Supreme Court justices, 51 Circuit Court judges and 137 United States District Court judges. In a news release last fall, the White House said it was “transforming our judiciary.”
Through a representative, Schwartz declined requests for an interview. In written statements to the Senate Judiciary Committee, he described his past legal work as judicious and fair.
“I believe that my own work has been characterized not only by integrity and careful legal reasoning, but by objectivity and fairness,” he wrote.
A White House spokesman referred questions about Schwartz to the Justice Department, which defended his nomination in a statement. “Stephen Schwartz has spent more than a decade litigating a wide range of constitutional and commercial claims in a sophisticated litigation practice,” the statement said. “Combined with his sterling academic credentials, this deep and varied experience makes him well-qualified for the Court of Federal Claims.”
In 2008, Schwartz received a law degree from the University of Chicago Law School, where he was a member of the law review. He became an associate at the Kirkland & Ellis, a law firm that has employed such notable conservatives as Attorney General William P. Barr, White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Schwartz was first nominated in June 2017. The nomination, to a 15-year-term, languished as Senate Democrats raised questions about his credentials and Republicans focused on higher priority seats on the federal district and appeals courts. He was renominated in November, and his nomination moved to the Judiciary Committee last month.
The Court of Federal Claims handles many financial claims against the government that draw on the Constitution, federal statutes or agency contracts. Cases include environmental regulations, contracting disputes and labor issues. The court is based in Washington but has jurisdiction over the entire country.
Daniel Epstein, who founded Cause of Action in 2011 and now advises Trump as a White House lawyer, has also been nominated for one of the court’s 16 seats. His nomination is pending.
Democrats and some left-leaning legal observers said Schwartz exemplifies the Trump administration’s strategy of naming young, conservatives to every level of the federal court system.
“Schwartz is another example of Trump’s ideal nominee for the bench: a conservative ideologue who is determined to undermine civil rights and federal agencies,” said Vanita Gupta, who headed the Obama Justice Department’s civil rights division and is now president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Schwartz, a native of Rochester, Minn., was outspoken about his political views at Yale from the time of his arrival in September 2001.
While pursuing a degree in history, he became active in the university’s relatively small conservative community, according to documents he submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee and a review of his columns in the Yale Herald. He joined the Tory Party of the school’s political union and often sought out debates with his more liberal classmates.
In interviews, two former classmates recalled Schwartz as gracious, opinionated and dapper — in khakis and button-down shirts even at hours when others in his dining hall wore pajamas. “He was impeccably dressed and very comfortable in his own skin,” said Gwendolyn McDay, who lived in the same housing as Schwartz. “He had the courage to share his views, even though it was unpopular. His views were different.”
In early 2005, Schwartz began writing a biweekly column that sometimes carried the label “Always Right.”
“Being ideologically at odds with nearly everyone in your college isn’t a pleasant experience in itself, needless to say, but it can be a useful one, especially if one relishes notoriety,” he wrote in one column, adding that “I got used to being addressed as ‘enemy’ in the dining hall.”
In another, he wrote skeptically about Social Security and other government payments to Americans, chiding political leaders for trying to offset financial inequalities in the country. “Since differences in wealth correlate with normal human differences in capacity for work, collaboration, innovation, leadership, thought, and so on, economic inequality is a healthy byproduct of differences between people,” he wrote.
In still another, he blasted the George W. Bush administration for failing to cut spending sufficiently in its proposed budget. Schwartz wrote that the best approach “is a paring back of federal activity at all levels.”
“The federal government should devolve many of its current responsibilities to the states which are constitutionally empowered to fill them and may well do so better than Washington,” he wrote.
In an April column, with his college career drawing to a close, he expressed pride in his conservative advocacy.
“I very much hope that I’ve done credit to the conservative tradition during my Yale career,” he wrote. “I’ve argued that abortion is wrong, that racial preferences in college admissions are dangerous, that gay marriage should stay illegal, that immigration should be curtailed.”
In 2015, Schwartz joined Cause of Action. The group received about $30 million in donations through June 2018, according to the most recently available data. Most of that money came though Donors Trust, a clearinghouse of contributions to free-market and conservative advocacy organizations. The contributors who gave to Cause of Action through Donors Trust are not publicly disclosed.
Schwartz began filing lawsuits aimed at curtailing federal agencies and attempting to scale back government regulations. He sued the Department of Commerce on behalf of East Coast fisherman seeking to reverse a decision forcing them to pay for monitoring of their activities at sea. And he represented an Arkansas women, who ran a multistate consignment business, in an action brought by the Department of Labor.
In the 2015 radio interview, Schwartz said Cause of Action wanted to help individuals and companies while also combating government overreach. “And it’s really an immense problem, kind of a structural problem with American government that is hurtful to American society,” he told WBSM radio in New Bedford, Mass.
In 2016, Schwartz moved to a small law firm in Washington cofounded by Gene Schaerr, who has fought multiple legal battles against same-sex marriage. The firm’s co-founder was Stuart Kyle Duncan, a Trump appointee to a federal appeals court who has denounced the Supreme Court’s landmark decision guaranteeing the right to marry for same-sex couples.
That year, Schwartz and the firm’s two founders argued on behalf of North Carolina in an unsuccessful bid to get the Supreme Court to uphold a controversial voter law. An appeals court had ruled that the law was intended to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and was “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.”
In 2017, the three represented Gloucester County, Va., in an unsuccessful effort to adopt a policy requiring transgender students to use bathrooms that correspond to their birth gender, not their gender identity, court records show. The Supreme Court chose not to hear their appeal.
In written questions after he was first nominated, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked Schwartz about the political controversies related to his legal work.
“In short, you seem to have spent the vast majority of your time representing clients on hot-button social political issues,” she wrote in August 2017. “How can we be sure that you will approach your role as a judge on the Court of Federal Claims with the fairness and objectivity that all judges must exhibit?”
Schwartz responded that he has worked for and against the government and on a large amount of general commercial litigation.
“The diversity of interests I have represented, and the ways that I have represented those interests, should encourage confidence that I can fulfill the obligations of a judge,” he wrote, according to records maintained by the Judiciary Committee.