A former clerk to Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who was a staunch defender of his boss during the controversial hearings last year, moved one step closer Thursday to becoming a federal judge himself despite Democrats blasting the pick for a lack of trial experience.
The Senate Judiciary Committee moved Justin Walker, who is 37, out of committee by a party-line vote, 12-10. The nominee to the U.S. Western District of Kentucky will face a full confirmation vote on the Senate floor.
Mr. Walker teaches legal writing at the University of Louisville. He previously clerked for Justice Kavanaugh when he sat on the federal appeals court in Washington and clerked at the Supreme Court for now-retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
During Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, Mr. Walker appeared regularly on network television to defend his former boss’s record and reputation after the nominee faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Justice Kavanaugh vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
Democrats said Mr. Walker worked only on a single trial, which did not require him to speak in the courtroom, and noted he has conducted one deposition.
They said a nominee for a lifetime appointment to the federal bench should have more experience in the courtroom.
“This nominee is not qualified for the district court,” Sen. Dick Durbin said.
“Rather than gaining experience in a courtroom, he spends much of his time in recent years personally appearing on television and radio. He has done nearly 100 media appearances. Mr. Walker lacks the basic experience that a district court judge needs,” the Illinois Democrat said.
Because of his lack of experience, the American Bar Association rated Mr. Walker not qualified. Typically a judicial nominee needs 12 years of litigation experience to get a good rating from the ABA, but Mr. Walker has been out of law school for about 10 years.
“Mr. Walker has never tried a case as lead or co-counsel,” said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s top Democrat, announcing her opposition.
Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, though, pushed back against his colleagues on the other side of the aisle, saying Mr. Walker’s experience teaching law gives him knowledge on the nuts and bolts of litigation.
Mr. Lee said the federal bench benefits from academics as well as experienced trial lawyers.
“Justin is young. His youth understates his capacity. His intellect is absolutely outstanding,” Mr. Lee said. “I’m honored to know him and to support his nomination.”
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, told the committee this year Mr. Walker was “unquestionably the most outstanding nomination that [he’s] ever recommended.”
On Thursday, Mr. McConnell said he was pleased to see his Republican colleagues recognize Mr. Walker’s credentials.
“Justin will make an extraordinary addition to the federal judiciary, and I look forward to the full Senate considering his nomination soon,” the leader said.
Mr. McConnell has focused on remaking the federal bench with a conservative bent during the Trump administration, working with President Trump to confirm a record number of federal appeals court judges.
This week his chamber confirmed four district court judges, bringing the number to 109 since Mr. Trump took office. Republicans also have confirmed two Supreme Court justices and 43 federal circuit court picks.