Government & Politics

Hawley, under pressure from right, overcomes qualms about Trump judicial nominee

Sen. Josh Hawley announced Thursday that he will vote to advance Neomi Rao, President Trump’s nominee for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, after she assuaged his earlier concerns in a private meeting.
Sen. Josh Hawley announced Thursday that he will vote to advance Neomi Rao, President Trump’s nominee for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, after she assuaged his earlier concerns in a private meeting.

After a week of pressure, Sen. Josh Hawley joined his fellow Republicans in advancing President Donald Trump’s nominee to a prestigious seat on the federal bench.

The Missouri Republican said that Neomi Rao, Trump’s nominee for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, told him in a private meeting Wednesday evening that she sees the Constitution as fixed text and rejects the doctrine of “substantive due process,” the legal theory used to justify the Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion.

“We had a long discussion. She was in my office for nearly a full hour. I appreciated her candor. It was very, very thorough,” Hawley said.

Rao’s nomination, approved on a party line vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee, now heads to the full Senate. Hawley said as long as Rao adheres to the statements she made in his office that he’ll support her on the Senate floor.

Hawley initially hesitated to back Rao’s nomination, drawing an enormous backlash from conservative interest groups. He said the attacks played no role in his eventual decision to support Rao.

“I think all the pressure that I got has been very public and has been out in the public and people are welcome to make whatever threats they want, but I think they’ll learn that I don’t respond to threats,” Hawley told reporters.

The Judicial Crisis Network, which repeatedly attacked his Democratic predecessor, Sen. Claire McCaskill, for her votes on Trump nominees, announced a $500,000 ad campaign to pressure Hawley to support Rao. She was tapped by Trump to succeed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the influential federal appeals court in the nation’s capital.

“It would be very ironic to see him take the same route as Claire McCaskill in opposing Trump judges,” said Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director for the Judicial Crisis Network.

After the committee vote, JCN announced it was pulling the planned ad campaign, which was slated to begin Friday.

“We are not currently running ads and will continue to monitor the situation. We are pleased that Ms. Rao was voted out of committee and we look forward to her swift confirmation,” a JCN spokeswoman said in an email.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page printed two columns lambasting Hawley, including one saying he had the “lean and hungry look” that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar ascribed to Cassius, the ambitious Roman senator who plots his assassination.

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell privately scolded Hawley on the matter, according to The Washington Post.

Hawley declined to share details on his meeting with McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who helped recruit Hawley to the 2018 Senate race.

“It was a private conversation in which I updated the leader, as I do on a regular basis, on where I am on various things,” Hawley said.

During the hearing, multiple GOP lawmakers criticized the overall effort to bully Hawley and applauded the scrutiny he gave Rao’s nomination.

“In the last few days, there’s been a considerable amount of criticism directed at Sen. Hawley, which I think was wrong. It was arrogant and misinformed,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican. “The idea that people think they can pummel a senator on this committee to keeping his or her mouth shut is a mistake.”

Hawley told reporters Wednesday that he had pored through Rao’s legal writing ahead of a one-on-one meeting with the nominee, where he pressed her on substantive due process and other legal principles.

He said he also reached out to Rao’s former boss, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, as part of his vetting.

Substantive due process means that the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees not only procedural rights—such as the right to a fair trial—but basic rights not specifically mentioned elsewhere in the Constitution. Under this doctrine, abortion is one of these basic rights.

Severino, who, like Rao, served as a clerk for Thomas, compared the effort to paint Rao as an abortion rights supporter to “smears on Kavanaugh.”

“We don’t even know her personal views on the issue except for this one rumored statement,” Severino said.

Kavanaugh was accused of committing sexual assault as a high school student during his Supreme Court confirmation process. During his Senate campaign Hawley repeatedly decried the attacks against Kavanaugh and made the issue the centerpiece of his effort to unseat McCaskill.

As the appeals court in the nation’s capital, the D.C. Circuit handles some of the most important cases in the nation and is often seen as a stepping stone to the Supreme Court.

Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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