Hoping to reassure Republicans worried that he might be too liberal, Donald Trump on Wednesday named 11 conservative judges from outside the Washington Beltway as his likely choices for a Supreme Court justice should he be elected president.
For a presidential candidate to release such a list before the election – or, in Trump’s case, even before formally winning the nomination – is highly unusual.
The move comes as Trump is seeking to unify Republicans. Presenting a list of judges well known on the right could help him with a significant constituency: social conservatives who have been skeptical of his past support for liberal stands on issues such as abortion.
But as with many other moves by Trump, the announcement raised questions – not least of which was how committed the New York businessman was to the list or even how familiar he is with those on it.
Several of the names have appeared on published lists by conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, and at least one, Texas Supreme Court Justice Don R. Willett, has publicly mocked Trump in Twitter messages in recent weeks.
Most of the judges on Trump’s list come from the South and Midwest. Conspicuously absent are any currently working on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which is the conventional breeding ground for high court nominees. That seems to fit in well with Trump’s narrative as a Washington outsider.
Five are Republican appointees to state supreme courts: Willett, Allison Eid of Colorado, Joan Larsen of Michigan, Thomas Lee of Utah and David Stras of Minnesota.
The six others are George W. Bush appointees to federal appellate courts around the country: Thomas Hardiman of Pennsylvania on the 3rd Circuit; Raymond Kethledge of Michigan on the 6th; Diane Sykes of Wisconsin on the 7th; Steven Colloton of Iowa and Raymond Gruender of Missouri on the 8th; and William Pryor of Alabama on the 11th.
Larsen was once a clerk for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, whose seat has yet to be filled.Three others were once clerks for Justice Clarence Thomas, Scalia’s conservative partner at the high court.
Missing from the list are prominent conservatives from Washington, D.C., including Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a Bush appointee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and former U.S. Solicitor Gen. Paul Clement, both of whom have been seen as strong candidates for the high court in the next Republican administration.
Trump’s list won plaudits from conservative activists as well as Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the Judiciary Committee chairman who has refused to hold a confirmation hearing for Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia.
“Mr. Trump has laid out an impressive list of highly qualified jurists,” Grassley said, citing Colloton as an example. “Understanding the types of judges a presidential nominee would select for the Supreme Court is an important step in this debate so the American people can have voice in the direction of the Supreme Court for the next generation.”
Carrie Severino, a former Thomas clerk and lawyer for the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group, said it was “heartening to see so many Midwesterners and state court judges on the list. They would bring a valuable perspective to the bench.”
The current Supreme Court has been faulted by some because all of its justices were educated at the Harvard or Yale law schools, and most spent their working careers in Washington, New York or Boston.
Josh Blackman, a professor at the South Texas College of Law, praised Trump for naming five judges who serve on state high courts.
FOR THE RECORD
6:03 a.m.: An earlier version of this article identified a South Texas College of Law professor as Josh Blackmun. His name is Josh Blackman.
“We have not had a justice appointed from a state court since Ronald Reagan plucked Sandra Day O’Connor from the Arizona [state] Court of Appeals,” he said. Doing so would “reinforce the importance of federalism and that federal Constitution is not the end-all, be-all of laws.... I still harbor serious doubts about Mr. Trump’s views on constitutional law, but his advisers have served him well here.”
Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice, said Trump’s list demonstrates the “enormous stakes in the coming election for the future of the court. Taken together, the records of these potential Trump nominees reflect a radical-right ideology that threatens fundamental rights and that favors the powerful over everyone else.”
Some conservatives expressed doubts about whether Trump was truly committed to his list. Charles Sykes, an influential conservative radio host in Wisconsin, who has strongly criticized Trump, is the former husband of Diane Sykes. In a Twitter message, he praised his ex-wife, saying she would be “an outstanding choice.”
But, he said, “I simply don’t believe Trump.”
The most outspoken conservative on the list is Pryor, an Alabama native and protege of the state’s Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions. Pryor has called the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion the “worst abomination in the history of constitutional law.” In 2005, the advocacy group Lambda Legal called him the “most demonstrably anti-gay judicial nominee in recent memory” and noted that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper described him as a “right-wing zealot."
In an early campaign debate, Trump cited Pryor and Sykes as potential Supreme Court nominees to replace Scalia.
Willett made Trump’s list even though he has repeatedly used Twitter to mock the candidate.
In February, when Trump referred to Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. “signing a bill,” Willett tweeted, “I’m 100% certain than in my 10+ years as a Supreme Court Justice, I’ve never once signed a bill.”
In another tweet, Willet wrote, “Who would the Donald Name to #SCOTUS? The mind reels … weeps — can’t finish tweet.” Another time he suggested Trump may be liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in disguise. “Can’t wait till Trump rips off his face Mission Impossible-style and reveals a laughing Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
Lee, the Utah justice, is the son of former Reagan-era Solicitor Gen. Rex Lee and the brother of Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.
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Times staff writer Michael Finnegan in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
On Twitter: DavidGSavage