U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was the only Republican to oppose President Donald Trump’s controversial nominee to a key appeals court position in a procedural vote on Wednesday, though he is still on track for approval in the Senate.
Republicans advanced the nomination of Justin Walker to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in a 52-46 vote, with all Democrats and Collins opposing them. Walker, who is 38, has been a U.S. District Court judge from Kentucky since October 2019.
The circuit is the second-most prominent court in the country because it covers Congress and federal agencies and is seen as a stepping stone to the U.S. Supreme Court. Walker clerked for the since-retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and for Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit before Kavanaugh was confirmed to the high court in 2018.
Collins backed Walker when he was confirmed to the lower court. But she said in a Wednesday statement that she could not support him again after defiant comments at his 2019 investiture as a judge in which he defended Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault by a California professor during his confirmation process. Kavanaugh denied all allegations.
“In Kavanaugh’s America, we will not surrender while you wage war on our work, or our cause, or our hope, or our dream,” Walker said in a speech in Kentucky attended by Kavanaugh and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
Collins said while Walker is “entitled to hold whatever personal views he chooses,” his “ideological comments … prevent me from supporting his elevation to the second highest court in the land.”
The Maine senator, who has a record of generally supporting judicial nominees from presidents in both parties, backed all Trump judicial nominees who made it to the Senate floor in 2017 and 2018. She opposed her first one in March 2019 and Walker is the ninth and the most high-profile one she has opposed so far.
Her opposition has not sunk those nominees, however. Trump has confirmed 197 judges during his tenure, which is the second-highest total through this point in his presidency since Jimmy Carter. Walker was deemed “not qualified” by the American Bar Association when first nominated to a federal post last year.
Judicial nominees are one of the biggest issues in Collins’ 2020 campaign. Her heavily scrutinized vote for Kavanaugh came after a 40-minute speech in which she emphatically defended his record and described the process as a “caricature of a gutter-level political campaign than a solemn occasion.”
It led Democrats to heavily prioritize the Maine seat. House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, publicly floated the idea of a campaign the same day. She is now the frontrunner with the backing of national Democrats in a three-way primary on July 14 against Hallowell lobbyist Betsy Sweet and Saco lawyer Bre Kidman.
Gideon and Democrats criticized Collins after Kavanaugh voted with the minority in a 6-3 decision that extended a federal workplace anti-discrimination law to LGBTQ workers. Supporters of Collins, who cheered the ruling, countered that she had also voted for four justices in the majority, including two nominated by former President Barack Obama.
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated Susan Collins backed all of Trump’s judicial nominees in 2017 and 2018.