One of President Trump’s federal appeals court nominees is facing opposition from advocacy groups and at least one Republican senator, who told the judge Wednesday there’s serious concerns about his judicial record on religious liberty.
Sen. Ted Cruz, a member of the Judiciary Committee, expressed doubt during Judge Halil Suleyman Ozerden’s confirmation hearing about whether he’s the type of constitutionalist the Texas Republican wants to see on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
The key issue centers on a religious liberty ruling Judge Ozerden made while serving on federal bench in the Southern District of Mississippi against Catholics who protested the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.
“For a lifetime appointment to the court of appeals, what I believe we should be looking for is a demonstrated record as a constitutionalist. As I look at your judicial record … I don’t see any concrete indicia of that,” Mr. Cruz said.
In 2012, the nominee dismissed a complaint brought by the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi against Obamacare’s mandate that employers provide free contraception, arguing it required Catholics to violate the church’s teaching that life begins at conception.
The judge didn’t allow the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi to present oral arguments defending their claim, and instead gave deference to the federal government.
Judge Ozerden said the Obama administration was amending the policy, so the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi’s legal claim wasn’t ready for judicial review, and as a matter of law he had to dismiss the complaint.
“The law was very clear. Binding 5th Circuit precedent dictated the outcome in that case,” he told the Judiciary Committee.
Other Judiciary Committee Republicans such as Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Josh Hawley of Missouri have also expressed concerns about Judge Ozerden’s move in the case, according to Politico.
And the First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty law firm, has been petitioning Republicans to reject the nominee, saying he isn’t a conservative or affiliated with any conservative movements.
Judge Ozerden, in response to the criticism, said he’s been a judge for more than a decade, so his ideological advocacy was limited to his time before entering public service. He did, though, note he was a board member of the county Republican club while he was in private practice.
“If you look at my record on the whole you will see that I am committed to principles of textualism and following the law and following the Constitution,” Judge Ozerden said.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, Hawaii Democrat, asked the nominee why he joined the Federalist Society earlier this year. The organization of conservative and libertarian lawyers has become a punching bag for Democrats after its vice president helped draft a list of potential judicial nominees for Mr. Trump.
Ms. Hirono suggested the judge recently joined the group because of the opposition he faced from conservatives.
“It’s pretty clear you’re not conservative enough for them,” she said.
Liberal advocacy groups have also taken issue with the nominee’s record, saying he is hostile to worker’s rights.
Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron said senators must take a close look at his opinions, suggesting there’s some red flags, pointing to one case in particular where the nominee sided with an employer in a case brought by a black employee who was called the N-word and had nooses placed at his work site.
Judge Ozerden’s nomination, though, is backed by Mississippi’s two Republican senators, who praised his service to the country as a combat veteran in addition to his judicial service.
“His judicial and academic achievements alone qualify him for this position, but his good character, experience as a navy fighter pilot and record of volunteerism and community involvement are also exemplary,” said Sen. Roger Wicker.
Judge Ozerden is the son of Turkish immigrants and graduated from Stanford Law School. He’s been a federal district court judge for 12 years.