October 12, 2020

Is “But the Judges” Still Enough?

By Jamie Brown Hantman
Former Special Assistant to the President, White House
Former Acting Assistant Attorney General, OLA, U.S. Department of Justice

Jamie Brown HantmanI am a lifelong Republican who joined the Bush Administration after 9/11 and helped run the confirmation process for each of President George W. Bush’s nominees to the Supreme Court. And I am here to tell you that at this point, filling court vacancies is no excuse to vote for another four years of Donald Trump. The stakes are too high, the consequences to our constitutional system of government too great.

I joined the Bush Administration from the private sector, because when we were attacked on 9/11, I felt it was my duty to step up to help any way I could. I believed in the president, and more importantly, I believed in this great country, and the people in it. If I could use my skills as a lawyer to help keep us safe, I needed to do it.

While working for Attorney General John Ashcroft and then later in the White House itself, one of my main priorities was to help get Republican-appointed judges onto the bench, where I had confidence those judges would help keep this country strong. I had the enormous privilege to help lead the team that got both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito confirmed. That work is hands-down the professional accomplishment of which I am most proud, and I still care deeply about the federal judiciary and the quality of the people who are confirmed to the federal bench.

In 2016, a lot of my friends and colleagues voted for Donald Trump solely based on the desire to keep adding Republican-appointed judges to the bench. Many voters were convinced to do the same and often expressed the belief that even if a President Trump might govern unconventionally, it was worth risking all of his foibles in return for solidifying the courts for a generation. I didn’t agree with that reasoning, but I did understand it. And I could see how even reasonable Republicans could convince themselves that the trade off was worthwhile.

For those who prioritize the federal judiciary above all else, their bet on Donald Trump has indeed yielded dividends. In the last four years, President Trump, guided by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has filled over 200 judicial vacancies, including over 50 appellate positions and two Supreme Court seats (with a third likely before the 2021 inauguration). And of course, with another four years, more spots would be filled.

However, those considering voting for another four years of Donald Trump in return for even more judges must ask themselves, at what cost to our society and the system itself? We now have the benefit of almost four years of evidence, and we can see clearly a president who destabilizes and divides the country, defies the rule of law, spends every day weakening our democracy and our standing in the world, and who has utterly failed to protect us from the most deadly pandemic of our lifetimes. I believe it is time to say, “enough is enough.”

If you supported a Trump presidency for a slew of new Republican-appointed judges, ok, you got what you wanted. Frankly, there are few remaining vacancies even left to fill at this point. All of us — left, right and center — who love this country must now turn our eyes to the hard work of protecting our democracy and the very fabric of this nation before it is irreversibly ripped apart by another four years of divisiveness.

Chief Justice Roberts has said that judges are like baseball umpires. Their job is to call balls and strikes — to interpret the law as best they can. That is a critical role, but it requires a ball game to be taking place.

Voting for another four years of Donald Trump just to get even more judges would be like a baseball team burning down the stadium and forfeiting the season just to get a better umpire for games that no longer even exist. In the end, the umpire won’t really matter, will she?

The world’s best judges are inconsequential if the very foundation of our democracy is further eroded by constant attacks on our institutions, our constitution and the rule of law. I care about the federal judiciary and always will. But not at the expense of our democracy, our way of life, and even our lives. That is why I’m supporting Joe Biden for President.

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Jamie Brown Hantman is the author of Heels in the Arena: Living Purple in a Red/Blue Town. She served in senior roles at the Justice Department and the White House in the George W. Bush administration.