Hoping to replicate a strategy that has long been seen as key to his appeal among conservative voters, President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced he is adding 20 names to a list of Supreme Court candidates that he’s pledged to choose from if he has future vacancies to fill.
The list includes Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri — who have all been mentioned as possible 2024 Republican presidential candidates — as well as Christopher Landau, the current ambassador to Mexico, and Noel Francisco, who argued 17 cases as the Trump administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer.
“Every one of these individuals will ensure equal justice, equal treatment and equal rights for citizens of every race, colour, religion and creed,” Trump said as he made his announcement at the White House. Trump also warned his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, would select “radical justices” who would “fundamentally transform America,” even though Biden has never outlined his list of potential choices.
The release, less than two months before the election, is aimed at repeating the strategy that Trump employed during his 2016 campaign, when he released a similar list of could-be judges in a bid to win over conservative and evangelical voters who had doubts about his conservative bonafides.
The list includes several people who have worked for Trump, including Gregory Katsas, whom Trump nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Before that, Katsas served as a legal adviser to Trump and worked on some of the president’s most contentious decisions, including his executive orders restricting travel for citizens of predominantly Muslim countries and his decision to end a program protecting some young immigrants from deportation.
Francisco, the former solicitor general of the United States, also defended Trump’s travel ban, his push to add a citizenship question to the U.S. census and the decision to wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects some 660,000 young people from deportation. He also argued that a landmark civil rights law didn’t protect gay, lesbian and transgender people from discrimination in employment, a position the court ruled against 6-3 earlier this year.
The high court is currently divided 5-4 between conservatives and liberals. While there is no current vacancy on the court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, has been undergoing cancer treatment, and three others members of the court are in their 70s and 80s.
Trump has already remade the federal bench for a generation. And any vacancy in the highest court would give the winner in November — whether Biden or Trump — the ability to shape its future for decades to come.
Trump has stressed that power as he has campaigned, claiming that the winner of the upcoming presidential election “could have anywhere from two to four, to maybe even five” Supreme Court justices to pick, though that would require an extraordinary level of turnover.
Trump released two lists with a total of 21 names of potential Supreme Court nominees during his previous presidential campaign and added another five names in 2017 after becoming president. Trump’s two nominees to the court, Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, were both drawn from Trump’s list.
Even in a race reshaped by the pandemic and the national reckoning over race, Trump’s appointments of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh remain among his crowning achievements and Trump continues to highlight the brutal fight around Kavanaugh’s nomination as he tries to replicate the excitement it generated on the right and make the race an us-vs.-them battle over American values and cancel culture.
“Did you ever see anything like that? Justice Kavanaugh. People forget. You know, time goes by, they forget. We don’t forget. I don’t forget,” Trump told a rally crowd last month in New Hampshire.
For the president’s allies, the list is seen as a way to excite his base as well as well as remind voters of what’s at stake come November.
“I think it’s very important way for the president to reaffirm his commitment to an issue that many conservatives and Republicans see as a priority,” said Leonard Leo, the longtime executive vice-president of the conservative Federalist Society who participated in the Kavanaugh and Gorsuch confirmations. “This a great way to remind people pf the legacy he’s already established for himself in this area.”
Trump’s rival for the presidency, Joe Biden, has promised to nominate a Black woman to the high court if given the chance. Biden, too, has said he’s working on a list of potential nominees, but the campaign has given no indication that it will release names before the November election. Democrats believe doing so would unnecessarily distract from Biden’s focus on Trump’s handling of the pandemic and the economy, while also giving the president and his allies fresh targets to attack.
`We are putting together a list of a group of African American women who are qualified and have the experience to be in the court. I am not going to release that until we go further down the line of vetting them as well,” Biden said in June.
But Trump pushed back. He said that, apart from “matters of war and peace, the nomination of a Supreme Court justice is the most important decision an American president can make” and that, “For this reason, candidates for president owe the American people a specific list of individuals they’d consider for the United States Supreme Court.”
Any list may also be meaningless. Either man’s ability to get any future choice on the court depends on having a majority in the Senate, which confirms nominees. Republicans currently hold 53 seats in the chamber to Democrats’ 45, with two independents who caucus with the Democrats.
The court’s oldest members are Justice Ginsburg and Justice Stephen Breyer, 82, both liberals, and Justice Clarence Thomas, 72, and Justice Samuel Alito, 70, two conservatives. Ginsburg made news this summer when she announced she is being treated for a recurrence of cancer but has no plans to step down.
Regardless of party, presidents tend to look for the same characteristics in potential Supreme Court picks. Stellar legal credentials are a must. All of the current justices attended Harvard or Yale law school, though Ginsburg left Harvard and graduated from Columbia. And they tend to be old enough to have a distinguished legal career but young enough to serve for decades. That generally means nominees are in their late 40s or 50s — something Trump especially has stressed.