At annual gathering, Pa. conservatives take a victory lap on Trump’s judicial nominees

By: - April 7, 2019 6:30 am

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., speaks at the annual Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in East Pennsboro, Twp., Pa. (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison)

EAST PENNSBORO TWP., Pa. — To hear conservative leaders tell it, 2019 is a good time to be a Republican in Pennsylvania.

That message came through loud and clear at this weekend’s Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, an annual gathering of conservative activists from across the state that’s punctuated by speeches, seminars, and more than a few jabs at the left.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District, turned up for speeches at conference ground zero — the Radisson Penn Harris Hotel just outside Harrisburg. State lawmakers, including Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, and Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, took their turn on panels.

This year’s agenda focused on economic policy, with such panels as “Three Cheers for Capitalism” and “The Transformative Power of the Free Markets.” Speakers celebrated gains in the national economy, the rollback of federal regulation, and the enactment of federal tax reform as notable Republican victories under President Donald Trump.

But high-profile speakers also touted a quieter conservative victory over the last two years: Trump’s success in transforming the ideological makeup of the country’s judiciary.

During a speech on Friday, Toomey said Republicans could run a “victory lap” over Trump’s appointment of two conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court justices, as well as dozens of federal court judges, in his first two years in office.

Tim Goeglein, a think-tank leader who opposes abortion access and same-sex marriage and took the stage after Toomey on Friday, drove home the point that no matter what happens at the ballot box in 2020, Trump’s imprint on the judiciary will last at least a generation.

Goeglein, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Focus on the Family and a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, shared with the audience his “unquenchable optimism” Trump’s conservative judicial appointees signal a “rising sun” for conservative religious liberty issues like abortion and marriage.

To date, Goeglein said, Trump has confirmed 91 federal judges, including two Supreme Court justices and 37 judges to appellate courts, which decide the vast majority of legal cases in the United States.

Trump has appointed more appellate judges in his first two years in office than any other president. If his current pace keeps up, Goeglein said, the president is on track to replace more than one-third of all federal judicial slots with conservative judges in his first term.

“That is breathtaking,” Goeglein said. “Think about this: That’s one of every three federal judges who would be committed to upholding the Constitution and who would protect our religious liberty by applying the true meaning of the First Amendment.”

According to the Washington Post, “many of the president’s circuit nominees have impressive credentials, including Supreme Court clerkships, degrees from prestigious law schools and portfolios of legal scholarship. Most are members of the Federalist Society, the conservative and libertarian organization whose president, Leonard Leo, helped shape Trump’s list of high-court nominees.”

Trump’s success in getting his nominees confirmed has allowed him to shift the makeup of judicial circuits that have traditionally made liberal rulings.

With the confirmation of Trump’s appointee to the Third Circuit appeals court in March, the president successfully flipped a bench from a liberal to conservative majority for the first time in his presidency.

Goeglein said that pending nominees currently before the Senate judiciary committee could also flip or narrow liberal majorities on other liberal-leaning circuits in the northeast.

What’s also noteworthy, Goeglein said, is Trump’s tendency to appoint younger judges than his predecessors in the White House. He said the president has put forth jurists with a median age of 49 and also appointed the nation’s youngest-ever federal judge, 36-year-old Allison Rushing, who was confirmed in March after a vote that split on party lines.

Federal judges are confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate and appointed to lifetime terms. That means that Trump’s appointees are likely to serve for decades, allowing his imprint in the judiciary last beyond the end of his presidency.

“With young conservatives on the bench, it’s likely our federal courts will be staffed with jurists who will safeguard liberty for the next half century,” Goeglein said.

Goeglein also reminded his audience of the importance of turning out to vote in judicial races. Pennsylvania is a rare state that chooses judges through partisan elections.

“All judicial elections are local in this regard,” Goeglein said. “It’s very important that conservatives show up at the polls and put the right men and women on the bench.”

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.