New committee seeks to create a pipeline of Democratic U.S. Attorneys and judges

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The incoming Biden administration has a list of to-do-items nearly a mile long, and one group in Texas has something to add: prioritizing nominating qualified candidates for U.S. Attorneys and federal judgeships.

The Texas Democratic Lawyers Association (TDLA) is forming a committee to identify potential nominees for U.S. Attorney and federal judgeships for further evaluation by the 13-member Texas Democratic Congressional Delegation, which will provide advice and counsel to the new administration on qualified U.S. attorney and judicial nominees, albeit on an ad hoc schedule.

A committee working on behalf of the Democratic delegation would also serve as a counter to the infrastructure that already exists for Texas Republicans. In Texas there are four U.S. Attorneys, and they serve as the chief federal law enforcement official for each district. They are nominated by the president. Until the Biden administration can confirm any U.S. Attorneys through the Senate, acting U.S. Attorneys will remain in office.

Under President Obama, all four U.S. Attorney positions in Texas remained vacant for three years after he took office. Even though a president is free to pick whomever they would like for the position of U.S. Attorney, senators in the home state have traditionally held veto power over a nominee. Senators Cornyn and Hutchison (later Cruz) exercised that power to hold up Obama’s nominees. Obama deferred to the tradition of adhering to the veto power of home-state Senators until 2011.

Texas Republicans have created a robust network of nominees for not only U.S. Attorney but also federal judgeships in the state. Their nominees are often young and ideologically very conservative. When John Bash was nominated to be the U.S. Attorney of the Western District of Texas he was 36. Ryan Patrick, the son of the lieutenant governor, was also in his thirties at his nomination to be the U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of Texas.

One enduring legacy of the Trump administration is its impact on the courts. Almost a third of the judges on the nation’s thirteen circuit courts were appointed by Trump. On the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction over Texas but is based on New Orleans), Trump nominated three judges from Texas with conservative credentials, and all are relatively young: James Ho (48), Don Willett (54) and Andrew Oldham (42).

The Biden administration takes over with the slimmest of House and Senate majorities and a lengthy agenda that includes revamping the botched COVID-19 vaccine rollout, reversing many of Trump’s disastrous policies, and a Senate impeachment trial. The TDLA is hopeful that a committee will lessen the load of the overworked Texas House delegation, which will be in overdrive as the administration revs up. 

The acting and court-appointed U.S. Attorneys in Texas have strong ties to Republicans and the former Trump administration. Prerak Shah is the acting US Attorney in the Northern District of Texas. He was previously the Chief of Staff to Cruz in the Senate. Stephen Cox, the court-appointed U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, was a veteran of the Justice Department under William Barr, serving as the Deputy Associate Attorney General and the Chief of Staff in the Department’s Office of the Associate Attorney General.

The proposed committee from the TDLA is still in the works, but there has been outreach to the Texas Democratic delegation. The TDLA points out that a number of former U.S. Attorneys who served in their thirties or forties went on to become major pillars of the party, including former Attorney General Eric Holder, former Senator Doug Jones and Alejandro Mayorkas, the current nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

President of the TDLA, Nickolas Spencer, believes the committee would have a positive impact on future nominations in the state of Texas. “The committee allows Democrats to develop a deep bench of diverse, qualified nominees,” he said in a statement to Texas Signal.

Spencer elaborated about the committee and its initial goals. “It means that qualified people with diverse legal backgrounds—like public defenders or civil rights lawyers—are not overlooked. It gives Democrats the opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to all forms of diversity,” said Spencer. 

Photo: Joe Gratz/Wikimedia Commons

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