Analysis Law and Policy

Yet Another Far-Right Judicial Nominee Appears Before the Senate Judiciary Committee

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The American Bar Association—the professional legal association that conducts objective, nonpartisan assessments of judicial nominees—announced it had unanimously rated Leonard Steven Grasz “Not Qualified” to serve as a federal judge.

President Donald Trump’s mission to fill the federal judiciary with extremist judges continued Wednesday as the Senate Judiciary Committee considered four more nominees to the federal bench. One of those nominees, Leonard Steven Grasz, is so far outside the judicial mainstream that the American Bar Association (ABA)—the professional legal association that conducts objective, nonpartisan assessments of judicial nominees—announced it had unanimously rated him “Not Qualified” (with one abstention) to serve as a federal judge.

Yet he’ll likely get confirmed anyway.

An Omaha lawyer with decades of experience in conservative advocacy, Grasz is currently an attorney with the firm of Husch Blackwell LLP. Prior to entering private practice, he served as chief deputy attorney general of Nebraska for 11 years. In that role, Graz defended—among other things—Nebraska’s ban on “partial-birth abortion.” The challenge to the Nebraska law eventually landed before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999. In Stenberg v. Carhart, the Court struck the law as unconstitutional because it failed to contain an emergency exception for the health, life, and safety of a pregnant person. Following that decision, Congress enacted a federal version of the Nebraska law that ultimately included an emergency exception. And in 2007, the Supreme Court upheld that ban in its Gonzales v. Carhart decision.

Grasz has a long history of advocating against LGBTQ rights as well. He currently sits on the board of directors of the Nebraska Family Alliance, a far-right advocacy organization that defends the use of “conversion therapy” against LGBTQ people, sometimes called “pray away the gay.” The practice has been deemed dangerous by the mainstream medical community, and it is prohibited in some states. Grasz also stands for “fetal personhood,” a belief that life begins at conception and that legal abortion should end.

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Then there is the issue of the “Not Qualified” rating from the ABA. In a letter released to ranking members of the Judiciary Committee, the ABA noted that the standing committee “confines its evaluation to the qualities of integrity, professional competence, and judicial temperament.” 

Pam Bresnahan, the chair of the ABA’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, said in a corresponding statement to the committee that members of the ABA expressed concerns about Grasz’s ability to follow precedent. Noting his statements regarding “partial-birth abortion,” the report said Grasz’s “passionately-held social agenda appeared to overwhelm and obscure the ability to exercise dispassionate and unbiased judgment.”

The statement also noted colleagues interviewed said they were hesitant to speak candidly while working with him because they were worried about “repercussions.”

“In sum, the evaluators and the committee found that temperament issues, particularly bias and lack of open-mindedness, were problematic,” the statement said.

But Republicans on Wednesday vigorously defended Grasz anyway, calling him a “good person” for having deeply held conservative religious beliefs. This has been a theme echoed during the nomination and up through the Tuesday confirmation of another of Trump’s extremist nominees, Amy Coney Barrett, to the Seventh Circuit. In that case, Republicans accused Democrats of applying a “religious test” in opposing far-right judicial candidates. Barrett is a University of Notre Dame professor who, like Grasz, believes in fetal personhood and does not support LBGTQ rights. Barrett now has a lifetime appointment to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Should Grasz also be confirmed—which is all but a given, along with the three other lower-court nominees who were considered Wednesday—this already conservative appellate court will veer further to the right. The Eighth Circuit has already shown a willingness to be the appellate circuit that pushes the issue of overturning Roe v. Wade altogether up to the Supreme Court, and Grasz’s record on abortion rights indicates he’d be a strong voice from the bench joining in the chorus to re-criminalize abortion.

Nominating conservative judicial nominees and and running them through committee as quickly as possible is a familiar pattern from the Trump administration. With an eighth wave of announcements for U.S. attorneys on Wednesday, it’s one that shows no sign of relenting. By the time Trump’s administration ends, he may have changed the federal judiciary for a lifetime.

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