Hiltzik: Trump’s judges will move country to the far right for decades

Hiltzik: Trump’s judges will move country to the far right for decades

Ryan D. Nelson is a model of a modern anti-regulation conservative and culture warrior. As a Justice Department lawyer under President George W. Bush, he oversaw that administration’s campaign to go easy on polluters and roll back environmental rules.

In a 2007 case, he argued that tuna should be labeled “dolphin-safe” even if caught in nets known to cause millions of dolphin deaths. In private practice, he filed a brief for seven states arguing that governments shouldn’t be forced to upgrade their buildings in conformance with the Americans With Disabilities Act if the changes would cost money. His argument in the first case was rejected by an appellate court, and in the second by the Supreme Court.

Nelson’s waffling about the human contribution to global warming at a Senate hearing on his nomination by President Donald Trump to a top Interior Department post prompted Trump to withdraw his nomination in 2018.

Instead, Trump named him to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over California and seven other Western states.

The Republican Senate confirmed him, and he sits on that court today. In May, he was the author of a 2-1 majority opinion declaring unconstitutional California’s ban on the sale of semiautomatic weapons to those under 21.

The ruling, handed down on May 11, less than two weeks before an 18-year-old gunman used a similar weapon to slaughter 19 schoolchildren and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, evoked an America beleaguered by frontier lawlessness.

The California ban, he wrote, would leave young persons unable to protect themselves except with shotguns. As he wrote, “shotguns are outmatched by semiautomatic rifles…. Semiautomatic rifles are able to defeat modern body armor, have a much longer range than shotguns and are more effective in protecting roaming kids on large homesteads.”

Nelson, 48, is just one of a legion of youthful conservative judges appointed to lifetime terms by Trump in what may be the most far-reaching and radical remaking of the federal judiciary in American history.

Trump was able in his sole term to fill 28% of the 816 federal judicial seats, including 30% of the appellate judgeships and three of the nine Supreme Court seats, giving the latter court a potent 6-3 conservative majority. In this effort he was abetted by a Republican Senate majority that refused to fill open seats under President Obama and hastened Trump’s appointees onto the bench.

Trump’s influence may be most notable at the 9th Circuit. At the end of the Obama administration, the court was split 18 to 7 in favor of Democratic appointees. Trump’s 10 appointments to the court reduced the Democratic majority to 16 to 13. Biden has appointed three new judges to the court, but all replaced Democratic appointees.

“Trump has effectively flipped the circuit,” 9th Circuit Judge Milan D. Smith Jr., an appointee of George W. Bush, told The Times in 2020.

As my colleague Anita Chabria has observed, federal judges, especially those appointed by Trump, may represent the gravest threat to the safety of California residents. Nelson’s ruling overturning the state’s ban on semiautomatic weapons was only one sign of a tsunami to come.

In 2020, writing for a 2-1 majority of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Trump appointee Kenneth K. Lee overturned California’s ban on large capacity magazines, or LCMs, holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition, as an infringement of the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.

Like his colleague Nelson, Lee invoked “the right to defend hearth and home” against a putative phalanx of marauders.

“The ban makes it criminal for Californians to own magazines that come standard in Glocks, Berettas, and other handguns that are staples of self-defense,” Lee wrote. “Many Californians may find solace in the security of a handgun equipped with an LCM: those who live in rural areas where the local sheriff may be miles away, law-abiding citizens trapped in high-crime areas, … and many more who rely on their firearms to protect themselves and their families.”

It’s unclear what could shift the Supreme Court toward the center, other than persistent Democratic control of the White House and Senate and the passage of time. The American political and constitutional systems do not offer many options to change the ideological direction of a body endowed with lifetime appointments, other than expanding the size of the court or imposing term limits on justices.

Even under the most hospitable conditions, either option would probably take years to make a mark.

“Unless the House and Senate decide by the end of this year to do away with the filibuster and expand the Supreme Court by four justices, this isn’t going to change any time soon, outside of an act of God,” Faleschini says.

Michael Hiltzik is a Los Angeles Times columnist. ©2022 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

This content was originally published here.

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