WASHINGTON – A divided Senate on Wednesday confirmed President Donald Trump's 200th judicial nominee, a milestone that reflects the breakneck speed at which he and fellow Republicans have moved to create a legacy that will endure regardless of the outcome of this year's elections.
On a largely party-line 52-to-48 vote, the Republican-led chamber approved the nomination of Cory Wilson of Mississippi to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, elevating another conservative judge to a lifetime appointment on the federal bench.
With the confirmation of Wilson, Republicans also reached a benchmark vigorously pursued by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: For the first time in more than four decades, there are no longer any vacancies on the nation's appeals courts, the judicial level where most of the major rulings are handed down.
Wilson, 49, a state appeals court judge and former state legislator, became the 53rd circuit court judge nominated by Trump and steered to confirmation by McConnell, the driving force behind the GOP push to reshape the judiciary, who has adopted the mantra of "no vacancy left behind."
At the end of his eight years, President Barack Obama had 55 circuit judges confirmed by the Senate.
In remarks before the vote on Wilson's nomination, McConnell called him "an outstanding nominee for this important vacancy" and heralded the milestone of confirming 200 judges. He said it was not a partisan win but "a victory for the rule of the law and the Constitution itself."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said the "landmark achievement" was the result of "the president keeping his word" and the dedicated work of McConnell and other leading Senate Republicans.
"Their decisions will be driven by what the law actually says," Grassley said of the phalanx of confirmed nominees.
Wednesday's vote underscored that McConnell and fellow Republicans have been undeterred in ensuring confirmation of the president's picks for the circuit courts and other levels of the federal judiciary despite the crises of a pandemic, recession and civil unrest over racial injustice.
Filling court vacancies has become even more crucial for the GOP less than five months ahead of elections with the presidency and Senate majority at stake. Last month, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., urged federal judges who are in their mid- to late 60s to step aside so Republicans, increasingly nervous about holding the majority in November, can fill the vacancies now.
Among the objections expressed by Democrats to Wilson's appointment was his frequent criticism of Obama and other prominent Democrats while a state lawmaker and adviser to top Mississippi officials. Wilson, for example, called the Affordable Care Act "illegitimate" and "perverse," and wrote that he wished the Supreme Court would strike down the signature health care law that Obama signed in 2010.
During his confirmation hearing, Wilson said that as a judge he has put aside past criticism of Democrats and is committed to following the precedent of the Supreme Court.
The American Bar Association's committee on the federal judiciary rated Wilson as "well qualified" for a seat on the New Orleans-based appeals court ahead of his confirmation hearing.
Senate Democrats also questioned Wilson's commitment to voting rights.
Ahead of this month's Judiciary Committee vote to advance his nomination, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., cited a 2011 opinion piece written for a newspaper in which Wilson said concerns that a voter identification law would suppress voters in Mississippi were "Poppycock. Unless you count the dead vote, in which case they may be right."
"This record is extremely problematic at this moment in time," Harris said.
The confirmation of Wilson came less than a week after the Senate approved Trump's nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, elevating a young conservative and a protégé of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the powerful post.
The high-profile appeals court has been a pipeline for nominees to the Supreme Court. It handles major clashes between Congress and the White House, as well as challenges to administration policies.