WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate has approved the nomination of a Mississippi judge to a federal appeals court, the 200th federal judge named by President Donald Trump and confirmed by the Republican-controlled chamber. It's the highest number of judicial nominees confirmed at this stage of a presidency in four decades.
Cory Wilson was elevated to a seat on the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal despite Democratic objections that he has a record of working to undermine voting rights of African Americans and other minorities.
Approval came on a nearly party-line, 52-48 vote Wednesday. Maine Sen. Susan Collins was the only Republican to vote against Wilson.
Wilson, a former Republican state legislator, has been on the state appeals court for 16 months and will join the 5th Circuit, which hears cases from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. The court is considered one of the most conservative appeals courts in the nation.
Democrats and civil rights groups said Wilson has been a longtime proponent of voter ID laws that disproportionately harm communities of color, students, voters with disabilities and the elderly. Democrats also said he has made false claims about the prevalence of voter fraud in the United States and expressed opposition to enforcement of the federal Voting Rights Act.
"Judge Wilson’s troubling record on voting rights is highly relevant to his nomination,'' said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The 5th Circuit is a majority-minority circuit, she noted. About 55 percent of those who live in the region are minorities.
"The Senate should not confirm a nominee who would work to further restrict the right to vote from the bench,'' Feinstein said.
Feinstein and other Democrats said Wilson has demonstrated hostility to voting rights in Mississippi. In 2011, he dismissed concerns from the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP that a voter ID law would suppress the vote as “poppycock, unless you count the dead vote.″ In 2013, he wrote that then-Attorney General Eric Holder had “whined” that voter ID laws were part of an illegitimate orchestrated effort by Republicans to suppress poor and minority voting.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., called Wilson’s record “extremely problematic at this moment in time" as the nation faces a reckoning over racism in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and other African Americans.
Harris, one of three Black senators, said it would be “a particular affront to the people of Mississippi, a population that has 38% African Americans, to have Judge Wilson preside over voting rights cases in that state.″
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Wilson “an outstanding nominee,” and noted that he has served as a lawyer in private practice, a state lawmaker, adviser to top state officials and a judge. The American Bar Association rates Wilson as “well-qualified.”
McConnell, who has made confirmation of judicial nominees a priority, said that with Wilson's confirmation, there will be no appeals court vacancies in the nation for the first time in at least 40 years.
“As I’ve said many times, our work with the administration to renew our federal courts is not a partisan or political victory. It is a victory for the rule of law and for the Constitution itself,'' McConnell said.
Democrats said McConnell and Trump were focused on far-right judicial nominees at the expense of legislation to address the COVID-19 pandemic, gun violence, voting rights and other issues.
"Over the last three years, instead of focusing on legislation to help the American people, Leader McConnell and President Trump have dedicated almost every ounce of their energy and focus to packing the courts with right-wing ideologues who they know will do their bidding from the bench,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
Democrats also blasted Wilson's longtime opposition to the Affordable Care Act, the health law passed under President Barack Obama.
Before becoming a judge last year, Wilson frequently criticized Obama and other Democrats and called passage of that law “perverse” and “illegitimate.″ Wilson also wrote that he hopes the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the law, which Obama signed in 2010.
Wilson, 49, said during his confirmation hearing last month that he expressed opinions about Obama, Hillary Clinton and other Democrats when he was a GOP lawmaker and adviser to top state officials. He pledged to follow the precedent of a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the health care law.