The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to advance three of President Trump's federal appeals court nominees.
The full Senate will now consider the nominations of Steven Grasz of Nebraska to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Texans James C. Ho, and Don Willett to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The committee voted 11-9 along partisan lines to pass them out of committee.
Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who announced Thursday that he will resign soon because of sexual assault and harassment allegations against him, did not participate at Thursday's hearings but voted "no" on all three nominees by proxy.
"The three circuit court nominees, one from Nebraska and two from Texas, are all exceptionally well qualified to serve as appellate judges," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said Thursday.
Grasz's nomination attracted scrutiny from Senate Democrats because the American Bar Association rated him "not qualified" to serve on the federal appeals court because of his "pro-life agenda." Republicans argued the ABA's rating was biased, even as Senate Democrats cited it as reason to oppose Grasz.
Willett also won some attention last month when he defended his use of Twitter as a Texas Supreme Court justice during his nomination hearings. Specifically, the justice sought to explain his use of Twitter to talk about bacon and former Major League Baseball player Alex Rodriguez.
On Thursday, Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island raised new concerns about the three federal appeals court nominees being compromised by "powerful interests."
"I am sorry to predict that Grasz and Willett and… Ho will join a stream of a number of the Trump nominees who will turn out to be terrible judges," Whitehouse said. "Inevitably, despite the committee’s best efforts people come on to the bench and sometimes they turn out to be terrible judges, but this is different. I think these nominees are here precisely because powerful interests expect them to be terrible judges. For those powerful interests, this is not a bug in the nominees’ candidacies, it is the feature."
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse labeled Whitehouse's remarks "bizarre."
"Every Republican or anybody who believes that a judiciary should be independent is supposedly a puppet," Sasse said of Whitehouse's comments. "I would love to have Mr. Whitehouse come to town hall meetings in Nebraska with me and say to little old ladies who regularly tell me at town halls the number one issue they care about in elections in America is nominating judges who understand that they have lifetime appointments and that they’re not politicians; their job isn’t to make policy, it’s not to be super-legislators. And the idea that these little old ladies are somehow the tools of corporate interests is just bizarre."
Following Thursday's hearing, the Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on Wednesday for Elizabeth L. Branch's nomination to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and five nominees to open federal judgeships in Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and the District of Columbia.