TRUMP’S LATEST APPELLATE APPOINTMENT IS A STRIKE AGAINST DEMOCRACY
Last week, the GOP-led Senate voted to confirm another Trump judicial nominee before responding to nationwide demands for policing reform and desperate calls for more relief from the deadly pandemic still raging across the country. For Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, this is exactly where his priorities lie. Judges have always come first. He recently fast-tracked his protégé Justin Walker to the nation’s second highest court, although the seat isn’t open for months. Walker is only 38 years old, became a district court judge last year despite having never tried a case, and possesses a dangerous ideology unsuited to any bench.
Cory Wilson’s confirmation to a Mississippi seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit may be the last Senate vote on a Trump appellate nominee. There are no more vacancies on the nation’s circuit courts. Appallingly, McConnell is reportedly urging judges to retire in order to create more vacancies but none are on the horizon.
With Wilson’s confirmation, Trump has appointed 200 lifetime judges to our federal courts. Make no mistake: They will inflict lasting damage on our courts and country. This is especially true for appellate courts which are courts of last resort in most cases. In one term, Trump has appointed almost as many appellate judges (53) as President Obama appointed in eight years (55). Many of these judges had long records of hostility to civil rights when nominated. They are the least diverse judicial appointments in modern history.
Cory Wilson exemplifies the worst of Trump’s judicial nominees. As a white male, he does not improve the judicial diversity of the Fifth Circuit, which covers Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas and presides over the highest percentage of residents of color of any circuit. Trump has appointed 45 white appellate judges but not a single Black appellate judge. How tragic is it that Harry Truman appointed more Black circuit judges 70 years ago, including William Hastie to the Third Circuit, than Trump has done today.
Cory Wilson will join a bench jam-packed with Trump judges, who are already transforming this court with notorious rulings. Judge Kyle Duncan went out of his way to deny a transgender litigant’s simple request to use her correct name and pronoun. Judge Kurt Engelhardt’s ruling in a fair housing case, according to a dissenting Reagan appointee, would render liability “a dead letter.” It is a cruel irony that the Fifth Circuit was once known to history as the court of “unlikely heroes,” whose judges risked personal harm to enforce the mandate of Brown v. Board of Education.
Like many Trump judicial nominees before him, Cory Wilson opposes voting rights. This is no accident. As the NAACP describes in its report “Weaponizing the Bench to Suppress the Vote,” court-packing is a key part of the GOP voter suppression playbook. Leonard Leo, the architect of Trump’s judicial takeover, is now engaged in defending voter suppression in the very courts he helped to pack. The Trump bench has already begun its assault on democracy. Look no further than Eleventh Circuit Judge Elizabeth Branch’s stunning dissent in which she said voters should not be allowed to sue states under the Voting Rights Act.
Unfortunately for Black and Brown residents of the Fifth Circuit, Cory Wilson is one of the worst offenders. Cory Wilson helped craft a voter ID law for Mississippi and then defended it as representing the will of the people, with no recognition of its impact on Black voters. Cory Wilson denies that voter suppression even exists. When the Mississippi NAACP complained that voter ID would suppress the vote, Wilson stated: “Poppycock, unless you count the dead vote, in which case they would be right.” He refers to national civil rights organizations seeking to enforce voting rights as “rent-a-mobs.”
Cory Wilson belongs nowhere near a Mississippi seat on the Fifth Circuit, where voting rights are always on the docket. Black Mississippians have struggled long and hard for the right to vote. Medgar Evers was assassinated for leading the fight to participate in democracy. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were registering Black voters in Mississippi when they were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. The Department of Justice filed its first case under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 against the State of Mississippi. Although Mississippi has the highest percentage of African-American residents of any state, no Black candidate has been elected statewide since Reconstruction.
The Senate should have rejected this anti-voting rights judge for this seminal court in the Deep South. No one bringing a voting rights appeal before Cory Wilson could possibly hope for a fair hearing. His bias against voting rights and their enforcement is simply too strong. His confirmation—which Mitch McConnell considered a national priority—should never have happened. The only silver lining is that Trump’s disastrous court-packing will hopefully end soon and we can reclaim our federal judiciary with fair and diverse judges who respect the right to vote, which is foundational to every other right.
Leslie Proll is a civil rights lawyer and advises the NAACP on judicial nominations.