Longtime Dem Donor Tied to Poor ABA Rating of Trump Nominee

Longtime Dem Donor Tied to Poor ABA Rating of Trump Nominee
AP Photo/Lido Vizzutti
Longtime Dem Donor Tied to Poor ABA Rating of Trump Nominee
AP Photo/Lido Vizzutti
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Democratic senators are using derogatory statements from a Montana Justice Department official to justify their opposition to Lawrence VanDyke, President Trump’s nominee for the Ninth Circuit, without disclosing that the official has donated nearly $30,000 to Democrats running for federal office nor the background that he and VanDyke are longtime political foes.

Michael Black, who served as the chief of the Civil Services Bureau of the Montana Department of Justice when VanDyke (pictured) was the state solicitor general, has made no secret of his personal and professional disdain for VanDyke.

Five years ago, when VanDyke unsuccessfully tried to unseat Montana Supreme Court Justice Michael Wheat, Black told a local newspaper that his opposition to the candidate “has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with the fact that I just don’t think he has the maturity or the work ethic to aspire to this position.”

The article didn’t mention that Black has been a frequent donor to Democrats running for office, but it did quote VanDyke saying that Black had a “long, sort of mysterious vendetta against me.”

Over the last 14 years, Black has doled out at total of $28,200 to prominent Democratic candidates, including President Obama, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Jon Tester and none to Republicans, according to opensecrets.org, an online database of political donations.

In 2008, his contributions already maxed out to Obama, that campaign returned an additional $500 check Black had cut.

Earlier this week, conservative judicial advocacy groups revealed that the American Bar Association didn’t disclose that its lead evaluator for VanDyke’s “not qualified rating,” Montana trial attorney Marcia Davenport, donated to Wheat when VanDyke was challenging him for the state Supreme Court seat.

Black is now running his own campaign for the Montana Supreme Court. Five years ago, the same year VanDyke challenged Wheat, Black unsuccessfully sought an appointment to the state high court when a vacancy opened up.

Nothing about Black’s political leanings was disclosed during VanDyke’s Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing Wednesday when Democratic Sen. Chris Coons cited emails from Black questioning VanDyke’s professionalism and “judicial temperament.”

Coons also suggested that the ABA partly based its controversial “not qualified” for a lifetime appointment rating for VanDyke on these emails.

“Based on publicly disclosed emails from your work [as Montana solicitor general] … I’ve got some insights into your record that may have underlain the ABA letter,” Coons said during the hearing, referring to emails from Black, which were previously cited by a local Montana news outlet.

The non-qualified ABA rating, outlined in a letter from its Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary to the Senate judiciary panel, became a flashpoint ahead of Wednesday’s hearing.

The partisan clashes over the rating continued during emotional testimony in which VanDyke pushed back at the criticism and became tearful when disputing suggestions that he wouldn’t be able to treat members of the LGBTQ community fairly.

The sharply worded ABA letter justified its “not qualified rating” by saying it had interviewed more than 60 judges, lawyers and other people VanDyke had worked with in four states and found evidence that he was “arrogant, lazy and an ideologue.”

The ABA committee said it had also considered “detailed” research, including emails, news articles and opinion pieces written about him.

While noting VanDyke’s accomplishments, the ABA letter said they are “offset by the assessments of interviewees” revealing “a theme that the nominee lacks humility, has an ‘entitlement temperament,’ does not have an open mind, and does not always have a commitment to being candid and truthful.”

Republicans and conservative supporters have assailed the lack of transparency in the ABA process used to produce the unqualified rating, arguing that the organization has grown increasingly biased against conservatives. They contend that the rating is motivated by concerns about VanDyke’s past writings on LGBT marriage equality issues and how he would rule on abortion-related and environmental cases.

The ABA, for instance, did not disclose any of the identities of the 60 people it interviewed to evaluate VanDyke. But Coons’ references -- and those of liberal judicial advocacy groups -- to Black’s comments about VanDyke in emails and public statements make it obvious that his opinions played a significant role in the evaluation.

Several conservative senators during the hearing lashed out at the ABA process and defended VanDyke, who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, served as the solicitor general in Montana and Nevada, and has argued over 20 appeals in the federal circuit courts. 

Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Josh Hawley of Missouri called for a suspension of the ABA’s access to nominees. Referring to the association’s failure to disclose that its lead evaluator donated to VanDyke’s opponent the Montana Supreme Court race, Hawley expressed outrage.

“I find that absolutely unbelievable. If you want to talk about bias, if you want to talk about fair procedures. It probably explains the ad hominem nature of this disgraceful letter,” Hawley said during the hearing.

In response to the controversy, ABA Standing Committee Chairman William Hubbard issued a statement arguing that its ratings are nonpartisan and noting that nearly all of the 264 ratings it’s provided of Trump nominees have been favorable.

Conservative groups, such as the Judicial Crisis Network and the Article III Project, are assailing the secrecy surrounding the ABA process and contend that the organization relied on cherry-picked information from disgruntled employees and political enemies in its “not qualified” evaluation of VanDyke.

“Suspected terrorists in Gitmo have more due process, including the ability to confront their witnesses and see the evidence against them, than conservative judicial nominees have with the ABA,” said Mike Davis of the Article III Project.

Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director of the Judicial Crisis Network, said in a National Review op-ed that the ABA has a history of bias against conservatives but had really “outdone itself” with the VanDyke unqualified rating.

“It is difficult to envision a more principled, highly qualified nominee for the Ninth Circuit seat than Lawrence VanDyke,” she tweeted after the hearing Wednesday. “In his hearing today he passionately and persuasively demonstrated his remarkable competence and character.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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