With Wilson’s confirmation, Republicans also reached a benchmark vigorously pursued by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): For the first time in more than four decades, there are no longer any vacancies on the nation’s appellate courts, the judicial level where most of the major rulings are handed down.
Wilson, 49, a state appeals court judge and former state legislator, became the 53rd circuit court judge nominated by Trump and steered to confirmation by McConnell, the driving force behind the GOP push to reshape the judiciary, who has adopted the mantra of “no vacancy left behind.”
By contrast, at the end of his eight years, President Barack Obama had 55 Senate-confirmed circuit judges.
In remarks ahead of the vote on Wilson’s nomination, McConnell called him “an outstanding nominee for this important vacancy” and heralded the milestone of confirming 200 judges.
He said it was not a partisan win but “a victory for the rule of the law and the Constitution itself.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said the “landmark achievement” was the result of “the president keeping his word” and the dedicated work of McConnell and other leading Republicans in the chamber.
“Their decisions will be driven by what the law actually says,” Grassley said of the phalanx of confirmed nominees.
Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) was the only Republican to vote against Wilson’s nomination, while all 47 members of the Democratic caucus opposed it.
Wednesday’s vote underscored that McConnell and fellow Republicans have been undeterred in ensuring confirmation of the president’s picks for the circuit courts and other levels of the federal judiciary despite the crises of a pandemic, recession and civil unrest over racial injustice.
Filling court vacancies has become even more crucial for Republicans less than five months ahead of an election with the presidency and the Senate majority at stake. Last month, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) urged federal judges who are in their mid- to late 60s to step aside so that Republicans, increasingly nervous about holding the majority in November, can fill their seats.
The effect of the GOP push was made clear on Wednesday, as a federal appeals court ruled that a longtime district judge cannot scrutinize the Justice Department’s decision to drop its long-running prosecution of Trump’s former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn and must dismiss the case.
The ruling was written by Judge Neomi Rao, a recent nominee of the president.
Among the objections Democrats expressed about Wilson’s appointment was his frequent criticism of Obama and other prominent Democrats while he was a state lawmaker and an adviser to top Mississippi officials.
Wilson, for example, called the Affordable Care Act “illegitimate” and “perverse” and wrote that he wished the Supreme Court would strike down the signature health-care law that Obama signed in 2010.
During his confirmation hearing, Wilson said that as a judge, he has put aside past criticism of Democrats and is committed to following the precedent of the Supreme Court.
The American Bar Association’s committee on the federal judiciary rated Wilson as “well qualified” for a seat on the New Orleans-based appeals court ahead of his confirmation hearing.
Senate Democrats also questioned Wilson’s commitment to voting rights.
Ahead of this month’s Judiciary Committee vote to advance his nomination, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) cited a 2011 opinion piece written for a newspaper in which Wilson said claims that a voter identification law would suppress voters in Mississippi were “Poppycock. Unless you count the dead vote, in which case they may be right.”
“This record is extremely problematic at this moment in time,” Harris said.
Wilson’s confirmation came less than a week after the Senate approved Judge Justin Walker, Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, elevating a young conservative and a protege of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the powerful post.
The high-profile appeals court has been a pipeline for nominees to the Supreme Court and handles major clashes between Congress and the White House, along with challenges to administration policies.
During Kavanaugh’s bitter confirmation battle, Walker was out front in media interviews defending the judge, who faced allegations of sexual assault when Kavanaugh was a high school student, an accusation he denied.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) criticized Walker’s nomination as part of a pattern in the Senate of fast-tracking young, inexperienced lawyers whom lawmakers characterized as “hostile” to the 2010 Obama-era health-care law and civil rights.
Donna Cassata contributed to this report.