May 6 (UPI) -- The Senate Judiciary Committee's Wednesday hearing to confirm prospective federal appeals court nominee Justin Walker divided along expected partisan lines.
Walker is backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in whose office he once worked as an intern, and regards himself as a protégé of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. He was confirmed in October to serve as judge for the western district of Kentucky, and at 37, has been nominated to serve on the Washington D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
That court is regarded as influential since it has jurisdiction over Congress and government agencies. Barring an unexpected vacancy on the Supreme Court, Walker's potential nomination is expected to be the Senate's foremost judicial battle this year. The vacancy on the court comes after D.C. Circuit Court Judge Thomas Griffith, appointed by former President George W. Bush, announced his retirement in March.
Senate Democrats took issue with Walker's lack of judicial experience as well as comments he made critical of key sections of the Affordable Care Act.
"You haven't hidden your contempt for the Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said. In a 2018 article, Walker called the court's actions at the time "indefensible."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., cited remarks by Walker earlier this year at an event in Kentucky attended by McConnell and Kavanaugh. Walker referenced a suggestion, later discredited by the Supreme Court, that a mandate to buy health insurance could be interpreted as a tax.
"Here you come before us having mocked the law that basically provides an attempt to provide health insurance to more Americans?" Durbin said. "Do you understand the angst, do you understand the concern that we have?"
In testimony, Walker brushed aside those comments as humorous, and an allusion to former Justice Anthony Kennedy's dissent from the majority position.
Walker also sidestepped Durbin's suggestion that he should, as circuit court judge, recuse himself from any matter pertinent to the Affordable Care Act. Senate Democrats said Walker's criticism of the healthcare act deserves more scrutiny in an era in which many Americans are out of work and lacking healthcare due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the hearing a "waste [of] precious time on the nomination of Leader McConnell's protégé. Walker is a 37-year-old Federalist Society disciple who has more experience as a cable news commentator than he does trying cases in court," referring to the conservative and libertarian think tank espousing an originalist, or non-interpretive, view of the U.S. Constitution.
Walker gave praise to conservative-leaning Supreme Court justices in his testimony.
"I think Justice Kavanaugh as well as Justice Kennedy are outstanding judges," he said. "I think that good judging means being faithful to the original meaning of text [of the Constitution]."
Walker also defended his single notable decision while on the bench in Kentucky, a decision to allow drive-in church services on Easter in Louisville despite the pandemic. In a 20-page opinion, he said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, a Democrat, criminalized the celebration of Easter by ordering a ban on gatherings, and called Fischer's decision an assault on religious liberty.
"It was a long opinion because I believed it was a momentous and even severe thing for a court to enjoin a mayor in the midst of this terrible pandemic when the mayor is asserting that his actions could save lives," Walker said in testimony. "And I only made the decision I did because that is what the law required."