The Senate voted 51-42 to confirm Judge Justin R. Walker to the nation’s premier federal appeals court on Thursday over bitter Democratic objections and a prominent Republican defection.
Judge Walker’s addition to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit comes less than a year after he first became a judge — he was confirmed to a lower federal court in October 2019.
Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican facing a tough reelection battle in November, supported Judge Walker’s confirmation to the lower court last year but voted against Judge Walker on Thursday.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer pointed to Ms. Collins’ reversal as evidence that Senate Republicans moved too quickly to elevate Judge Walker to the federal appellate court.
“There is no reason to do this nomination now. There is no stunning number of vacancies on the D.C. Circuit,” Mr. Schumer said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote. “We’re in the middle of a global pandemic and a national conversation about racial justice and police reform; this is about the Republican leader and his relentless pursuit of a right-wing judiciary.”
Mr. Schumer’s ability to thwart Judge Walker’s rise, however, was gutted by previous Democratic leadership. In 2013, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, eliminated the 60-vote threshold necessary to bypass a filibuster for judges.
On Wednesday, Judge Walker got 52 votes for cloture and successfully avoided a filibuster.
The judge’s Kentucky roots played a key role in garnering Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s support. Judge Walker was a Louisville law professor before joining the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky last year and his outsider status made him an attractive prospect for Mr. McConnell and President Trump, who nominated him.
Mr. McConnell, who’s said his motto is to leave no judicial vacancies behind, rejected any suggestion that Congress had reason to deny Judge Walker’s confirmation.
“My fellow Kentuckians and I are sorry to part with this son of the bluegrass, but mostly we are proud because Judge Walker will be putting his legal brilliance and his exceptional judicial temperament to work, not just for his home state, but for our entire nation,” Mr. McConnell said.
While the battle over Judge Walker’s promotion was ostensibly about the D.C. federal appeals court, it was also about the Supreme Court.
The D.C. court has become a proving ground for Supreme Court justices, including current Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Brett M. Kavanaugh. Judge Walker’s swift rise to the leading appeals court suggests he would be considered for any Supreme Court nomination that could materialize while Mr. Trump is president.
Mr. Trump tweeted Thursday that he will release a new list of potential nominees for any Supreme Court vacancy by September.