Conservative Group Wants to Bring ‘Brass Knuckles’ Approach to Judicial Fray

WASHINGTON — In the latest escalation of partisanship surrounding federal judicial nominations, an advocacy group is being created on the right to maintain momentum behind the Republican judicial juggernaut and prepare for the inevitable next Supreme Court fight.

Named the Article III Project for the section of the Constitution that established the judiciary, the organization will be led by Mike Davis, a former Republican Senate and White House aide who was a central figure in the confirmations of Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh.

Mr. Davis, 41, is known as a take-no-prisoners conservative eager to challenge the left with hardball tactics. He now intends to apply those techniques to judicial confirmations from the outside after his inside work on behalf of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh and scores of federal judicial nominees seated on the bench since the start of the Trump administration.

“What I want to do with the Article III Project is take off the gloves, put on the brass knuckles and fight back,” said Mr. Davis, an Iowa native who was the chief nominations counsel for Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican who was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee until this year.

The idea that he has had gloves on might surprise some opponents who found him a fierce and combative adversary, a Republican enforcer who worked to limit testimony critical of nominees and fought with Democrats over the release of documents during the Kavanaugh hearings. He has also on occasion provoked a backlash with incendiary tweets.

Justice Gorsuch privately called Mr. Davis “the general” of his confirmation while Justice Kavanaugh referred to the former Senate aide as “a warrior” on his behalf. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, singled him out for special praise after the successful vote to confirm Justice Kavanaugh following the tumultuous hearings. Former Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah praised Mr. Davis as the “tip of the spear” in that clash.

Mr. Davis said he had already banked significant seed money for his organization from donors he chooses not to disclose. He hopes to raise at least $1 million a year to bring on board a small staff of lawyers and communications professionals. He said his plan was not only to push for conservative judicial nominees, but also to come to the defense of sitting justices and judges facing attacks and calls for impeachment from the left. He pointed to the furor over the plan for Justice Kavanaugh to teach an overseas summer law school program for George Mason University, ridiculing “cupcake undergraduates” for raising a fuss.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing. He referred to Mr. Davis as “a warrior” on his behalf.CreditT.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

“It is not only helping the nominee get through this process but to protect judges once they are on the bench,” he said in an interview. “Once they are on the bench, they can’t fight back. They are sitting ducks.”

As the fight over abortion rights intensifies and the Trump administration and Senate Republicans focus on relentlessly filling court vacancies, both parties have been ramping up their court-related political messaging. And the future of the judiciary is certain to be a central topic in the 2020 campaign. Leading Democrats are already calling for changes in the makeup of the Supreme Court, including the possibility of enlarging it or putting term limits on justices.

The new group, abbreviated A3P, is partly a response to the creation of Demand Justice, a progressive organization trying to raise Democratic intensity over judicial conflicts. It was formed after Mr. McConnell stonewalled President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick B. Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016 and Mr. Trump’s subsequent election.

Mr. Davis said he saw his emerging organization as a complement to — not a competitor of — other conservative judicial advocacy groups such as the Judicial Crisis Network and said they would work in concert.

He first encountered Justice Gorsuch in the administration of George W. Bush and then clerked for the judge when he joined a federal appeals court in Colorado. He subsequently opened a private law practice in Denver. When the newly elected President Trump nominated Justice Gorsuch to the Supreme Court in January 2017, Mr. Davis assembled a volunteer team of former clerks and allies who swooped in to assist with the confirmation after the nominee clashed somewhat with his Washington handlers.

Mr. Davis clerked again for Justice Gorsuch at the beginning of his Supreme Court tenure. He then joined Mr. Grassley’s staff as the Senate and the White House — under the direction of the counsel at the time, Donald F. McGahn II — began an aggressive judicial push that has put more than 100 judges on the district and appeals courts at a record-setting pace. After Justice Anthony M. Kennedy retired, Mr. Davis became staff leader in winning the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh, aggressively countering Democrats and pushing back on the allegations against the nominee.

During that fight, Mr. Davis was criticized for a tweet that promised Republicans would get the nominee confirmed despite sexual misconduct allegations, but he deleted it after Kavanaugh opponents said it showed he did not take seriously the sexual assault accusations of Christine Blasey Ford. In recent days, he came under fire for retweeting a 2016 image from The Onion that showed a blood-spattered Mr. McConnell holding the severed head of Judge Garland outside the Capitol. He quickly took it down.

“When I realized it didn’t have the Onion reference, I immediately deleted that tweet,” he said. “It was stupid of me, and I have the utmost respect for Judge Garland.”

Despite criticism that such tactics only increase the mounting political toxicity around judicial nominations, Mr. Davis embraces his brash, loose-cannon reputation and points to his success with judicial confirmations — a record he will no doubt emphasize in getting his group off the ground. “Call it what you want,” he said, “but I think it is a loose cannon that happens to fire pretty accurately.”

Source: NYT

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