A Democratic senator tried to tie one of President Trump’s judicial nominees to a “hate group” Wednesday, saying the woman’s decision to speak at an event sponsored by Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious liberty law firm, makes her unfit to sit on a federal appeals court.
Sen. Al Franken lobbed the charge at a hearing for Amy Coney Barrett, Mr. Trump’s pick to fill a seat on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump’s nominee to the 6th Circuit, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen, faced questions over a conservative advocacy group Judicial Crisis Network, which ran ads to pressure her home state senators — both Democrats — to back her confirmation.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, said he worried about who was contributing to fund the ads.
“I look out at a very significant machinery of influence that is designed — that has at its purpose — to bring the will of ideological and commercial interest into our courts,” he said.
As the minority, Democrats have been searching for lines of attack to try to derail Mr. Trump’s court picks, hoping to make some of them too toxic for even Republicans to back.
But Justice Larsen assured the senators she has no allegiance to the Judicial Crisis Network and her record reflects she is not beholden to commercial interests.
“When there have been cases when a corporation or insurance company was on one side and an individual was on another, those cases have come out about 50-50,” she said.
And Ms. Barrett, who has spent most of her legal career as a law professor at Notre Dame, said she wasn’t aware of any controversy surrounding ADF when she agreed to give a presentation on constitutional interpretation.
“I had no reason to think it was a hate group and that was certainly not my experience,” said Ms. Barrett.
The hate group charge stems from a report by the controversial Southern Poverty Law Center, which identifies hundreds of organizations across the nation it says attack entire classes of people.
Michael Farris, president of ADF, bristled at the charge, and said seven of the Supreme Court’s justices agreed with ADF’s position in a case earlier this year about state funds used for a church playground.
“As a member of Congress, Sen. Franken needs to fact-check before parroting discredited attacks by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a once-proud civil rights organization that is now a left-wing smear machine known to incite violence,” said Mr. Farris.
The Southern Poverty Law Center did not provide a comment for this article but instead pointed back to its report on ADF, saying the law firm spreads “known falsehoods about LGBT people.”
Carrie Severino, chief counsel for the Judicial Crisis Network, said the hate group allegation is reckless, and has incited violence against conservative organizations.
She also said Mr. Whitehouse’s criticism of her organization’s ad campaign is nothing new.
“Sen. Whitehouse has a long history of trying to chill free speech,” said Ms. Severino.
But Dan Goldberg, legal director for the progressive Alliance for Justice, said Mr. Whitehouse was right for questioning whether Judge Larsen will be on the side of commercial interests or for every day Americans.
Mr. Goldberg was also critical of Judge Larsen’s time at the Justice Department under the Bush administration where she authored a memo on the rights of detainees. The Justice Department has designated the memo as confidential.
“The American people don’t have the ability to judge Justice Larsen’s thoughts on the subject,” said Mr. Goldberg.
Both Judge Larsen and Ms. Barrett clerked for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and like Scalia, Ms. Barrett is Catholic, which led to most of the questions she faced from senators about her view on abortion, the death penalty and whether judges should put their faith above the law.
Ms. Bennett was asked about several of her writings including a blog post critical of criminal sentencing changes, a law review article about judges’ religious beliefs conflicting with the law and another writing where she criticized stare decisis.
“You are controversial,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s ranking Democrat. “You have a long history of believing that your religious beliefs should prevail.”