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Ads assail conservative legal group over Trump’s court picks

By The Associated Press
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WASHINGTON (AP) — A liberal activist group is launching a digital ad campaign targeting the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization that has championed judges appointed by President Donald Trump, such as Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.

The ads, to appear on LinkedIn and Facebook, assail major law firms that sponsored the Federalist Society’s recently annual dinner, where Kavanaugh addressed more than 2,000 people in tuxedos and gowns at Washington’s Union Station.

The ads feature photos of a snarling Kavanaugh, along with Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers, a charge he denied. “The Federalist Society is rebuilding Kavanaugh’s image” through events such as its annual dinner, the ad charges, so why are the law firms paying for it?

Sponsored by Demand Justice, the ads target a half-dozen prominent firms that sponsored the dinner, such as Kirkland & Ellis, where Kavanaugh served as a partner, as well as Sullivan & Cromwell, WilmerHale and Consovoy McCarthy, where a senior partner was recently confirmed as a federal appellate judge.

The bare-knuckle ads are a rarity in the city’s genteel legal world and an example of the increasing toxicity of the political debate over Trump’s judicial nominees.

Demand Justice says the ads are the beginning of a sustained campaign “to hold accountable” people who help the Federalist Society “rehabilitate a sexual predator and attack the rule of law.”

The Federalist Society declined to comment. Carrie Severino, a longtime Federalist Society member and policy director of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, called criticism by Demand Justice and other liberal groups a badge of honor.

The Federalist group “is a successful network of conservatives and conservative lawyers that are very effective,” Severino said. Liberal critics “don’t like that,” she added.

The ads come as Trump and his allies celebrate his administration's success in getting more than 160 federal judicial nominees confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate, including 48 appeals court judges. About a quarter of current federal appeals court judges were nominated by Trump.

Senate Majority Mitch McConnell of Kentucky hailed Trump’s record on reshaping courts in an appearance with the Republican president this month. "And Mr. President, we're going to keep on doing it,” he said. “My motto is: Leave no vacancy behind.”

The Senate will begin considering eight more judicial nominees next week, including Sarah Pitlyk, a former Kavanaugh clerk who was deemed unqualified by the American Bar Association. Pitlyk, who has never tried a case, works for an anti-abortion-rights group. Many Democrats opposed her nomination.

Brian Fallon, executive director of Demand Justice, is a former adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and former spokesman for Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.

He said Pitlyk’s nomination and the recent party line confirmation of Steven Menashi, a former White House lawyer named by Trump to a New York-based appeals court, show the importance of the ad campaign.

Many of Trump’s nominees, Menashi among them, have ties to the Federalist Society, which has vetted and recommended dozens of conservative lawyers for Trump’s consideration as judges.

“Trump is larding up the judiciary with people who are loyal to him,” Fallon said.

The hard-hitting ads featuring Kavanaugh mirror the aggressive tactics conservative groups have used for years, Fallon said.

“The other side has been playing for keeps when it comes the courts for a long time,” he said. “Democrats need to get back in the game.”

Fallon angered more than a few Democrats recently with an ad criticizing Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a moderate who has supported some Trump judicial nominees. Fallon’s group said Coons should have opposed nominees who refused to explicitly endorse Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling that outlawed school segregation.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, called the ad “way out of line.”

Coons, who is up for reelection in 2020, brushed off the criticism.

Fallon said hardball tactics are succeeding. A report card compiled by Demand Justice found that in 2017-18, Senate Democrats voted for Trump’s judicial nominees more than 60% of the time. By 2019, Democratic support for judicial nominees plummeted to 28%.

Democrats unanimously opposed Menashi and Appeals Court Judge Neomi Rao, another former Trump aide who like Menashi had never tried a case before winning a lifetime seat on the appellate court.

Despite their confirmations, Fallon said he was “delighted” at Democratic solidarity in both cases. Unified opposition is needed to slow Trump’s transformation of the courts, he said.

WilmerHale and other law firms targeted by the ads declined to comment.

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