Conservatives' Ads Hit 2020 Dems Over 'Secret' Judges List
Top Democratic contenders vying for the chance to replace President Trump haven’t disclosed any names of potential nominees they would tap to fill open seats on the Supreme Court and other federal courts, and conservatives are now ratcheting up pressure on them to name names so voters can see how the judiciary would change under a Democratic president
With Democrats in Miami for two days of debates this week, the Judicial Crisis Network, a leading center-right group that focuses on judges, has launched a $1.1 million national ad campaign — television and digital -- calling on former Vice President Joe Biden and his fellow candidates to reveal their lists of potential court picks.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump released a list of possible Supreme Court nominees he would choose from, if elected. The move was unprecedented but also paid off. It was widely credited with helping reassure wary Republicans about the kind of administration Trump would run. Election Day polls also showed that one out of every five voters said the makeup of the Supreme Court was their top issue, and Trump won 57% of those voters.
“President Trump was open and honest with the American people and has kept his promise,” Carrie Severino, JCN’s chief counsel and policy director, said in a statement announcing the ad campaign. “He released his list of judges but Joe Biden and other Democrats running for president have yet to reveal theirs.”
One of the ads, which will run on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, recalls the fierce partisan firestorm over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation process last fall.
“The radical left smeared Judge Kavanaugh,” the ad states, before quoting Trump saying, “They tried to ruin his life, all in the pursuit of political domination and control.”
“Their coordinated attacks failed. Now the same radicals want to pack the court,” the ad states. “They’ve been keeping a secret list of judges that they won’t show anyone.”
“Keeping America in the dark. Running for president with a secret list of court picks,” the ad continues. “What are they hiding? Tell Joe Biden: ‘Trump released his list. Why won’t you?’”
Biden's lack of transparency on the issue is particularly concerning because of his long history and in-depth knowledge of the judicial confirmation process, conservatives argue. The 36-year Senate veteran served as chairman of the Judiciary Committee during the contentious battle over Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' confirmation and the Democratic campaign that sank Robert Bork's nomination to the high court.
The ad’s contention that Democrats have their own secret list of potential court picks is a reference to a recently announced effort by liberal judicial activists to compile a roster of progressive judges who could fill openings if a Democrat wins the White House in 2020. Building the Bench, an initiative by the Alliance for Justice and other liberal organizations, will identify progressive judges they believe are best-suited to fill likely vacancies.
Democrats are counting on scores of lower-court openings as senior judges appointed by Presidents Obama, Clinton and Carter wait out the Trump administration before they retire if a Democrat wins the presidency.
“We’ve launched #buildingthebench to make sure the next president won’t lose a minute when it comes to fixing the damage the Trump administration has done to our courts,” AFJ tweeted Thursday. AFJ is a 40-year-old organization that has played an instrumental role in every high-profile judicial battle since it successfully helped derail the nomination of Bork in 1987.
But unlike Trump’s transparent 2016 move, the AFJ and the other groups involved are keeping their lists of judges under wraps, and no Democratic presidential campaign is willing to say it would use the lists to select nominees.
RealClearPolitics reached out to a dozen of these campaigns to ask whether they would commit to selecting appointees from the Building the Bench roster. The campaigns of the top contenders in the field -- Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand and Julian Castro -- did not respond to repeated inquiries.
Alliance for Justice spokeswoman Laurie Kinney previously told RCP that the names being compiled will only be shared after the 2020 election if and when a potential Trump successor is setting up his or her administration.
“Names will be shared with an incoming administration, not the nominee,” she told RCP in a statement. “And it would not be our prerogative to disclose any names. In fact, it was the Trump campaign that chose to release names of potential Supreme Court nominees — not another organization. So, our two situations are very different; we are not a presidential campaign nor do we speak for one!”
She also said AFJ isn’t consulting or sharing potential names with Democratic presidential campaigns. Instead, she said the Building the Bench initiative is working with “nonprofits, rights advocates, unions and academics to identify a broad pool of diverse and highly qualified potential nominees.”