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Assistant Attorney General Beth Williams Delivers Remarks on Judicial Nominations to American Academy of Appellate Lawyers’ 2018 Spring Meeting


New Orleans, LA
United States

Thank you, and thank you Adam so much for those kind words and that introduction. I want to thank Adam and the other organizers for inviting me to this event. It is truly an honor to be here and join you in one of my favorite cities.

I will tell you though, it is a brave thing to schedule a talk at 9:00 am on a Saturday in New Orleans. You never know how many people are going to make it here after a night on Bourbon Street. So to all of you who are here this morning—I admire your dedication.

Before we begin our panel, I want to speak to you briefly about the judicial nominations process from the administration’s perspective, touching on what we’ve accomplished, the challenges we’ve overcome, and what you can do to help as we move forward.

When President Trump was on the campaign trail, he made the judiciary a central theme. It’s no surprise, then, that judicial nominations were a priority for this administration from the beginning, with a Supreme Court nomination one of the President’s first official acts.

Attorney General Sessions is likewise dedicated to supporting the President’s in this regard.  Both as a Senator, and now in his current position, he has made clear his support for the President’s appointment of extremely well-qualified, highly respected judges who will be neutral umpires. 

The nomination of Justice Gorsuch was only the first step in a long judicial project.

As of today, the President has nominated 102 individuals to serve on the federal bench, with 32 confirmations. Of those 102 nominees, 27 are to the circuit courts of appeals. We’ve confirmed 14. That’s as many new appellate court judges as President Obama and Bush at this point in their presidency—combined.

But it’s not just about the numbers. Quality counts, and when you look at the life experience of these nominees, it’s hard not to be impressed.

I am going to step out on a limb here and say that there might be some people in this room who didn’t vote for President Trump. It’s hard to believe, I know.  And some of you might have even been concerned about the nominees the President would put on the bench.

I can report today that those concerns were unfounded.

One need look no further than to your own Barry Ashe, who like all of you is an experienced appellate practitioner.  He has been recognized as an outstanding attorney in his field.  Barry has been nominated by the President to serve as a federal district court judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana.  He has been voted favorably out of Committee and his nomination is currently awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.   We hope the Senate will confirm him quickly.

Because this is an appellate conference, I want to also focus on our nominees to the circuit courts.

Of those nominees to the appellate bench, a full 75 percent clerked on the circuit courts themselves.

An astounding 42 percent went on to clerk for the United States Supreme Court. That’s three times the rate of the nominees in the last administration.

Prestigious clerkships were only the beginning. In fact, these nominees went on to be pillars of the legal community.

Several of them were professors at some of America’s best law schools. Eleven have prior judicial experience, including three—Amy St. Eve, Amul Thapar, and Kurt Engelhardt—who served on the federal district bench.  Fifteen have practiced or argued before the Supreme Court.

And their stories are as impressive as their credentials.

Judge Amy Barrett, when she’s not a star professor at Notre Dame and now judge on the Seventh Circuit, is a mother of seven—yes, seven—children, including two she and her husband adopted from Haiti and one who has special needs.

Judge David Stras is the grandson of Holocaust survivors, who raised him never to forget the horrors of Kristallnacht.

Judge Stephanos Bibas grew up bussing tables at his family restaurant, learning about America from his father who hid from the Nazis on a Greek island.

John Nalbandian’s mother was born in a Japanese internment camp in Gila, Arizona.

Judge Don Willett grew up in a trailer, raised by a single mom who worked as a waitress at a truck stop to make ends meet.

His colleague on the Fifth Circuit, Judge Jim Ho, was born in Taiwan and learned English from Sesame Street.

Meeting these remarkable people, working with them, preparing them for their hearings, and seeing them confirmed to the bench, is the highlight of my job. They are the best of our profession.

Still, not every confirmation has been easy. The partisan divide in Washington is stark, and it is reflected in the 51-49 breakdown of the Senate.  The procedural obstruction has been unprecedented, with filibusters for of every single one of the 14 circuit nominees brought up for confirmation.  That means often 30 hours of floor time needed for each individual nomination.  This is despite the fact that many of our nominees have enjoyed bipartisan support.  Still, at this stage of the administration, the process of filling judicial vacancies has been one of its greatest success stories.

Getting here is an interesting story in of itself. One of the dynamics you can’t predict going into an administration is the relationship between the White House Counsel’s Office and the Office of Legal Policy. With this administration, we didn’t have a choice but to get along.

There was a Supreme Court vacancy on Day One and filling that vacancy was one of the President’s top priorities. Don McGahn assembled a top-notch team of lawyers, some of the best in the country. But here’s the problem—when an administration changes, the turnover in the White House is essentially 100 percent. So when White House Counsel Don McGahn and his team walked in the doors on Inauguration Day, they had themselves and that’s about it. Many of the tools you need to do the job of a lawyer, even the most basic ones, they were without.

All the little things you don’t think about when starting a new job—getting the printers set up, a new Westlaw Password, even having a computer assigned—are a pretty big deal when you will be nominating a Supreme Court justice in ten days.

Over at DOJ, we don’t have a hundred percent turnover, and we had the capacities that the White House temporarily lacked.

We were thrown in the fire together. We had to believe in each other. And that early challenge forged a bond of trust that has only grown as the months have passed.

It has been a pleasure working with Don McGahn and his team. He is not only a brilliant lawyer, but he is committed to the rule of law and to nominating judges who understand the limited but important role of the judiciary. The President was wise to entrust him with the position of White House Counsel, and I can say with absolute certainty that we would not be where we are today were it not for Don and his team.

But we’ve got a long way to go. The White House has moved quickly to nominate candidates to the bench, as I said earlier over a hundred, more than the Obama, Bush, or Clinton administrations, and perhaps the most ever at this point in a presidency. Unfortunately, the political process of confirmation has not moved so quickly, even for noncontroversial nominees with bipartisan support.

As of this morning, we calculate that there are 155 judicial seats that are either open or are expected to be soon. That’s a big number, and we should all be troubled by it. It represents more than vacant chambers and empty courtrooms.

It represents people charged with a crime who haven’t had their day in court, and victims left waiting for closure.

It represents injuries that haven’t been vindicated or compensated.

It is justice delayed and justice denied.

So today I’m not only here to tell you about our successes. I’m here to ask you for your help.

We do everything in our power to find good candidates for the district and appellate bench. But no one knows your home bar associations better than you do. Do not be shy about reaching out. To us at DOJ. To the White House. To your state senators.

You know, when I first took this job and started telling folks about it, I had to laugh, because 7 out of 10 people would say “Congratulations!”  And the other three would say “Congratulations!   You know I’ve always wanted to be on the D.C. Circuit.”  But that’s what you get in Washington.

And to be fair, some of them probably would make excellent judges.

Think about serving yourself. A federal judgeship is one of the highest honors a lawyer can be offered, but it’s a sacrifice, too. The confirmation process has become more contentious than ever before. And in this day and age where people change jobs more often than my kids change their minds about what they want for dinner, a lifetime can seem like quite a commitment. But we need you, and the country needs you to.

And urge your Senators to make confirming judges a priority. Good judges are in everyone’s best interest.

I hope that as you return to your homes, you will think about how we can continue to strengthen the judiciary. Justice is not partisan, and I hope that, regardless of party, this is an area where we can come together to ensure that the system of justice in the United States remains the greatest in the world.

Thank you.

Updated April 19, 2018