The same week that the U.S. COVID-19 death toll surpassed 7,000 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began urging Americans to wear masks while in public, President Donald Trump nominated two men to the federal appellate bench who have long records of partisan rhetoric and opposition to the expansion of affordable health care. Amid a pandemic that the president has viewed as a political problem, rather than the devastating health care crisis that it is, these nominees—Justin Walker and Cory Wilson—demonstrate Trump’s lack of regard for people’s health care.
Walker’s nomination is expected for a hearing on May 6, despite the clear need for the Senate to focus on the coronavirus crisis. When it comes time to act on these nominees, each senator’s support or opposition to their appointments will shed light on their views on the importance of affordable health care—a particularly pressing issue given the current pandemic, which has already killed more Americans than the Vietnam War.
As the coronavirus threat was becoming clear, instead of staying in Washington, D.C., to work on a response package, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) flew to Louisville to attend the investiture of Walker to his current seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. Justice Brett Kavanaugh attended with McConnell, and all three men fist-bumped after the ceremony. Just weeks later, President Trump nominated Walker to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit—on which Kavanaugh served before his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Walker has known McConnell since he was in high school and, earlier in his short career, was a clerk for then-Judge Kavanaugh. During Kavanaugh’s confirmation process, Walker conducted more than 150 media interviews to support his former boss, with dozens on Fox News alone. In those interviews, Walker described Democratic senators as “sanctimonious” while extolling Kavanaugh as a “warrior” who had been investigating Hillary Clinton since the 1990s. Walker’s partisan rhetoric has followed him on to the federal bench, where he recently wrote an opinion criticizing a Democratic mayor’s efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 as being something he “never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps the pages of The Onion.”
Walker has special disdain for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). He has described the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the law as “catastrophic” and again celebrated his former boss, trumpeting that Kavanaugh had written the “roadmap” for overturning the ACA. This view is all the more alarming—and problematic—in the face of the current pandemic, given the important position that the D.C. Circuit holds in American jurisprudence. That circuit, as Chief Justice John Roberts once explained, has a “special responsibility to review legal challenges to the conduct of the national government.” Moreover, it has decided important cases concerning the ACA and access to health care.
President Trump nominated Cory Wilson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit after previously nominating him to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi—a seat for which he did not receive a final vote. Previously a state representative in Mississippi, Wilson has used partisan rhetoric to disparage those with different political views—for example, writing op-eds on the so-called War on Christmas and describing former President Barack Obama as “King Barack” and “shrill, dishonest, and intellectually bankrupt.” Once, when describing Democrats more generally, Wilson wrote that his 8-year-old son “conceptualizes numbers the way Democrats do. In other words, he, like they, has no real concept or concerns.”
Wilson has described his opposition to the ACA using language similar to Walker’s. This is despite the fact that a repeal of the law would mean 100,000 Mississippians would lose insurance coverage and that, even in the context of high-profile Republican-led attacks on the ACA, health care enrollment in the state has grown. To Wilson, however, the health care law is “a massive, unworkable intrusion,” and he charged the federal leaders who supported its creation with “colossal incompetence and arrogance.”
The 5th Circuit, which recently sided with a Trump-backed lawsuit to overturn the law, oversees the states of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. Despite gains under the ACA, these states maintain some of the highest rates of uninsured individuals in the country and are facing rapid growth of COVID-19 cases. If Wilson’s partisan, anti-health care screeds are elevated to judicial opinions, it will be a particular insult to those across the region who already face significant barriers to accessing quality, affordable health care—brought into even sharper relief by the pandemic.
If Walker and Wilson’s ideological views are elevated and allowed to shape the ability of individuals to access health care, families across the nation will suffer. The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the deep disparities that still exist throughout the U.S. health care system—disparities that would only worsen with both nominees on the bench. In announcing these nominations during the COVID-19 pandemic, the president has made clear that he is unbothered by such an outcome. Especially given the current crisis, senators must not allow Walker and Wilson to take on such powerful roles in the judiciary; if they do, they will simply be demonstrating their own callous disregard for Americans who are unable to receive the care they need.
Maggie Jo Buchanan is the director of Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress.