/Mulvaney pushed judicial nominee over objections of White House lawyers

Mulvaney pushed judicial nominee over objections of White House lawyers

Mick Mulvaney,

Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney pushed for Halil Suleyman Ozerden to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals while Mulvaney was the director of the Office of Management and Budget. | Jacquelyn Martin/AP File Photo

The nomination on Tuesday of Halil Suleyman “Sul” Ozerden to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals offers the latest glimpse of how acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney is exercising his power inside the White House — in this instance, pushing a nominee whose views rankled some of the president’s most important supporters.

Mulvaney, who was a groomsman in Ozerden’s 2003 wedding, supported the 53-year-old district court judge’s nomination long before he joined the White House this winter, according to four sources familiar with the White House’s internal deliberations.

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He repeatedly pushed then-White House counsel Don McGahn to tap Ozerden for the nomination last summer, while he was still the director of the Office of Management and Budget, two of those people said.

Ozerden also had the strong backing of his home-state senator, Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who has pushed back against the judge’s conservative critics.

But his nomination sparked concerns in the White House counsel’s office in part due to the high rate at which his opinions have been overturned on appeal, particularly by judges held in high esteem in conservative legal circles.

“Mississippi is as red a state as they come. It sure seems like we could do better than Judge Ozerden there,” Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director of the Judicial Crisis Network, an organization that has spent millions of dollars in support of Trump’s judicial nominees, wrote last August, when Ozerden’s nomination was first floated.

The leaders of other groups, including the Susan B. Anthony List and the Family Research Council, echoed her concerns, trashing Ozerden in remarks to Breitbart News. “Judge Halil Suleyman Ozerden has utterly failed to protect people of faith against Obamacare’s assault on religious liberty and conscience rights and does not deserve a promotion to the Fifth Circuit,” Susan B. Anthony president Marjorie Dannenfelser said at the time.

Since then, however, Wicker engaged in an aggressive lobbying campaign, beseeching the group’s leaders not to criticize the nomination if it went forward. Wicker was “happy to address concerns and questions as the president considered this nomination,” according to a staffer familiar with the situation.

Severino on Wednesday said she had nothing to add beyond what she wrote last August in a blog post at National Review, in which she raised concerns about the rate at which Ozerden’s opinions had been overturned and added that some of the misgivings raised were grounded in worries over “mere judicial competence.”

Wicker, for his part, stood by his position. “I think he’s a solid judge with great experience. Solid conservative. … Also he’s a former fighter pilot, Navy fighter pilot, graduate of Stanford, graduate of Georgetown and would be a solid choice,” Wicker told POLITICO on Wednesday.

A spokesman for Mulvaney did not respond to repeated requests for comment. If confirmed, Ozerden would replace Judge Grady Jolly on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Jolly was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 and assumed senior status in October 2017. Deliberations over his replacement have been ongoing since then, and took place largely under McGahn, who left the White House in October 2018.

For Republicans and conservatives skeptical of Trump, the president’s record on judicial nominations has been a major selling point — and something the president plans to hammer home as he campaigns for reelection. Working closely with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the White House has managed to place more than 100 new judges on the federal bench, a legacy that will tilt the judiciary in a conservative direction for years, if not decades to come.

McConnell’s office has not indicated how strongly it will push for Ozerden’s nomination but has given no public indication that it has any misgivings.

The news of the nomination comes in the wake of the withdrawal of Trump nominee Michael Bogren.

Nominated to a federal court in Michigan, Bogren faced growing Republican opposition over a brief he wrote while defending the city of East Lansing in a case involving a Roman Catholic couple opposed to same-sex marriage. In the brief, Bogren used controversial analogies to defend the city’s decision to bar the couple from its farmers market after they refused to host a same-sex marriage on their farm, citing religious beliefs.

The analogies prompted a backlash from Republican senators, particularly Josh Hawley of Missouri, who slammed Bogren for his brief at his confirmation hearing last month. Hawley was later joined by Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina in opposing Bogren.

Bogren said in a statement that he saw “no path to confirmation” — something he chalked up to the mischaracterization of his record.

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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