WASHINGTON ― Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate have been voting in lockstep against President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees all year.
But Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) quietly broke from the pack on Thursday to vote to confirm Rodolfo Ruiz to a lifetime seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. And Harris joined Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) in voting to confirm Raul Arias-Marxuach to a lifetime seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico.
These votes mark the first time that any of the 2020 hopefuls in the Senate have voted to advance or confirm one of Trump’s judicial picks this year (barring Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who just announced his presidential bid last week and has supported some of Trump’s nominees). The remaining senators running for president ― Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Bernie Sanders (Vt.) ― can still say they have opposed all 17 of Trump’s court picks in 2019.
Why did some of these senators just break from their records?
Harris, Klobuchar and Booker didn’t help to confirm particularly terrible judges; neither Ruiz nor Arias-Marxuach were opposed by civil rights groups who have been urging Democrats to oppose lots of Trump’s other court picks. But for the 2020 crew, it’s been more about the principle of not helping Trump confirm any judges given their staunch opposition to his policies, the extreme ideological bent of his court picks to date and their protests of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blowing up Senate rules to confirm the president’s lifetime nominees more easily.
Harris and Gillibrand both vowed in February to oppose all of Trump’s appellate court nominees, though they didn’t say anything about his district court nominees.
“This administration is packing the court that protected Dreamers from deportation and blocked the unconstitutional transgender military ban,” Harris said at the time, referring to Trump’s efforts to confirm his nominees to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco. “We need nominees who will uphold equality and justice. Until a fair process is in place, I will oppose every nominee to an appellate court.”
“President Trump and Senate Republicans are stacking the courts with extremist right-wing judges who are not independent or impartial,” Gillibrand said at the time. “The decision to move forward with these nominees without the support of both home-state senators is unacceptable. As long as Senate Republicans are going to preside over a broken process, I will oppose all Circuit Court nominations.”
The difference between them now is that Gillibrand can say she has a perfect record, if this is about the principle of voting no, and Harris can’t.
“I don’t get it at all,” said Brian Fallon, executive director of Demand Justice, a progressive judicial advocacy group. “What is the incentive for any Democrat running for president to vote for any of these Trump judges? McConnell went nuclear a mere month ago. Now is the time when Democrats should be fighting even harder against Trump’s court packing, not suddenly letting their guard down.”
Booker spokeswoman Kristin Lynch said the senator voted to advance Ruiz’s nomination because of his views on implicit racial bias, an issue that has been a priority of Booker’s. Ruiz has been a strong proponent of training judges to identify their implicit biases, said Lynch, and he is responsible for developing, publishing and distributing educational material on implicit racial bias as a member of two judicial standing committees in Florida.
Lynch did not say why Booker did not vote on Ruiz’s final confirmation.
Aides to Harris and Klobuchar did not respond to a request for comment on what changed for them. The mystery continues.
This article has been updated with comments from Booker’s spokeswoman.