The GOP’s bid to transform the federal bench with conservative judges hit its first significant snag Thursday as the White House withdrew the nomination of Ryan Bounds to serve on the powerful and famously liberal 9th Circuit appeals court.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced he would withdraw Bounds’s nomination after a scheduled vote to confirm him was delayed for nearly an hour while Republicans came to the realization they did not have the votes needed to carry Bounds’s nomination.
The nomination drew widespread criticism over articles Bounds wrote in the Stanford Review as an undergraduate that ridiculed multiculturalism and groups concerned with racial issues. Bounds attempted to apologize for those writings earlier this year, but his apology — which focused more on his rhetoric than his views — failed to convince Democrats or satisfy all Republicans.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) continued to raise concerns over those writings this week, his spokesman and others said, swaying Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who also would have voted against Bounds’s nomination had the vote taken place Thursday.
Republicans could not afford to lose any potential votes for Bounds’s confirmation, because the Senate is split between 51 Republicans and 49 Democratic votes. Only 50 Republicans are able to vote now, because Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is absent while he receives treatment for a serious form of brain cancer.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told reporters Thursday that the decision to withdraw the nomination was made with the White House, following concerns Scott raised.
“It became apparent the nominee was not going to prevail,” Cornyn told reporters after Bounds’s name was withdrawn. “The White House decided under the circumstances to withdraw the nomination, and so that’s where we are.”
Bounds was nominated to fill a seat traditionally reserved for Oregon on the notably liberal U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which represents the nine westernmost states. But neither senator from Oregon, both Democrats, agreed to the nomination through what is known as the “blue slip” advisory process, and they objected strongly when the GOP pushed ahead with Bounds’s nomination anyway.
On Thursday, they pointed to the White House’s withdrawal of Bounds as a victory for the process of vetting judges at a critical juncture as the Senate gears up to consider the nomination of Trump’s second pick to serve on the Supreme Court, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
“Had this nomination been approved over the objection of both home-state senators . . . it would have destroyed this informal check and balance in the system,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told reporters.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore) said, “My take is this will affect other judicial nominations going forward.”
“You just couldn’t defend this judge on the indefensible,” Wyden said, calling the decision “the Senate coming to its senses on judges.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) defended Bounds’s vetting process as “all transparent, very transparent.”
“This thing was thoroughly discussed,” he told reporters.
Bounds is the most high-profile, but not the first, Trump judicial pick to have his nomination withdrawn over controversial records. Last year, the White House was forced to withdraw the district-court nominations of Brett Talley, over reports that he defended “the first KKK” in a 2011 online post, and Jeff Mateer, over reports he had said transgender children were part of “Satan’s plan.”
A third district-court nominee, Matthew Petersen, withdrew after a video of him struggling to answer basic questions about legal procedure during his confirmation hearing went viral.
The withdrawal of Bounds’s nomination has potential implications for Republicans’ plans to transform the character of the 9th Circuit, where seven of the 29 seats are vacant and another vacancy is expected by late summer. Six of those eight seats traditionally belong to states represented by only Democrats — who are now feeling empowered by the failure of Bounds’s bid.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Thursday that she was pleasantly surprised by the turn of events with Bounds’s nomination.
“Let me put it this way — I knew there were problems,” she said, “but I didn’t know it would be withdrawn.”
Merkley added that he expected Senate Republicans and the White House to approach selecting the next 9th Circuit nominee differently as a result of the failure of Bounds’s nomination.
“Hopefully this will send a message that the White House needs to engage in authentic consultation if they want to have a smoother path in the Senate,” he said.
Erica Werner, Seung Min Kim, Paul Kane and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.