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Trump appeals court pick declared ‘not qualified’ by American Bar Association committee

For the second time this year, the American Bar Association (ABA) committee that vets federal judicial nominees has come out publicly against a Trump administration choice for a judgeship, declaring Leonard Steven Grasz “not qualified” to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit.

The ABA’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary said it had serious questions about Grasz’s temperament and about his ability to “to separate his role as an advocate from that of a judge.”

Grasz is an Omaha lawyer with the firm of Husch Blackwell LLP. He served as chief deputy attorney general of Nebraska for 11 years, defending, among other things, the state’s prohibition on “partial birth abortion.”

Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a backer of Grasz’s nomination, blasted the ABA’s judgment. “It’s sad that the ABA would contort their ratings process to try to tarnish Steve’s professional reputation in order to drive a political agenda,” he said in a statement reported by the Omaha World-Herald.

Grasz’s Senate nomination hearing is scheduled for Wednesday morning.

The ratings from the ABA, the nation’s largest organization of lawyers, once carried significant weight with the U.S. Senate and could doom a nomination, or at least create great doubt about Senate confirmation. Over time, however, they have lost some of their influence, with Republicans essentially ignoring them as politically tinged.

The ABA report notes that after Grasz’s nomination in early August, the committee immediately set about interviewing lawyers about his record. However, evaluators found many feared “possible repercussions” from speaking about Grasz because of his “deep connection and allegiance to the most powerful politicians in his state.”

The committee also said it uncovered a pattern illustrating Grasz was not “free from bias” and may “be unable to separate his role as an advocate from that of a judge.”

The committee additionally heard Grasz was “gratuitously rude.”

The attorney’s legal record caused concern with committee members. According to the document, Grasz has shown a willingness to ignore judicial precedent. Citing an article he wrote on abortion, the ABA noted Grasz showed a particular reluctance to accept the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions regarding abortion.

The committee cited a law review article in which Grasz wrote that “abortion jurisprudence is, to a significant extent, a word game,” and that the judicial system “should have construed the 14th Amendment as granting a ‘partially born’ fetus right to life that overruled a mother’s right to choose.”

Grasz’s “professed loyalty to a higher court’s rulings is difficult to square with this suggestion that a lower court judge was entitled … to question the jurisprudence of a superior court,” the report said.

“Many questioned whether Mr. Grasz would be able to detach himself from his deeply-held social agenda and political loyalty to be able to judge objectively, with compassion and without bias,” the report stated.

The committee — composed of 15 members from across the country and chaired by Washington lawyer Pam Bresnahan — unanimously found Grasz unfit for the federal bench.

Charles Goodwin, who serves as a federal magistrate judge in Oklahoma City, was also deemed “not qualified” in early October. 

The two public rebukes are relatively rare for the ABA. According to the ABA Journal, of the 58 Trump nominees for the bench, 28 have been rated “well qualified,” 13 “qualified” and now two “not qualified.”