Jose Luis Magana / AP
WASHINGTON — The White House counsel's office has interviewed approximately 20 lawyers for open seats on the federal trial court in Washington, DC, sources familiar with the process tell BuzzFeed News, setting its sights on a bench dominated by President Obama's nominees.
The White House has been vetting candidates for federal court vacancies for months, but with the US Supreme Court confirmation fight over, the counsel's office can focus its attention on the 126 other open seats across the country.
There are four vacancies on the US District Court for the District of Columbia. It's the dominant court in the nation for lawsuits over access to federal government records, and routinely handles major cases dealing with national security and legal challenges to actions by executive branch agencies. Nine of the the 11 active judges serving on the court were nominated by President Obama.
Candidates interviewed by the White House so far for the four vacancies include West Virginia Solicitor General Elbert Lin; Matthew Miner, a private practice lawyer who was a longtime senior aide to Attorney General Jeff Sessions when Sessions was still in the US Senate; and Dabney Friedrich, a former member of the US Sentencing Commission who served in the White House counsel's office under President George W. Bush.
Presidents typically defer to senators to recommend nominees for their home state district courts, but DC doesn't have any senators. President Trump is expected to rely little, if at all, on the advice of the city's lone official congressional representative, Democratic Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton. Democratic presidents have given Norton senatorial courtesy to recommend candidates; President George W. Bush didn't do so, but he did consult her on his intended nominees. Norton sent a letter to the White House in March asking for some voice in the process, but it isn't clear if she received a response. A spokesperson for Norton and a White House spokesperson did not return requests for comment.
The counsel's office is stacked with lawyers who practiced at private law firms in Washington before joining the White House and are familiar with the local legal community. Until recently, Leonard Leo, the executive vice president of the conservative lawyers' group the Federalist Society, was on leave from the organization to serve as an adviser to Trump on judicial nominations.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley has made recommendations for the DC court, lawyers familiar with the process told BuzzFeed News. A spokesperson for Grassley said in an email that, “Nominations to the Article III courts are the President’s to make. Occasionally the Chairman makes recommendations, as is customary.”
BuzzFeed News confirmed the names of six of the approximately 20 lawyers interviewed to date: Besides Lin, Miner, and Friedrich, the counsel's office has spoken with private practice lawyers Jessie Liu, Stuart Nash, and Kate O'Scannlain.
Although it wasn't clear if any of them are considered frontrunners at this stage of the vetting process, the varied backgrounds, political and legal connections, and experience among the six illustrate the wide range of lawyers that the White House is considering for the court.
Before joining the West Virginia attorney general's office as its top appellate lawyer in 2013, Lin practiced at a private law firm and spent a few years as a trial attorney at the US Department of Justice. He clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas, as well as Judge William Pryor of the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, who was one of the judges on Trump's short list for the Supreme Court.
Friedrich, a former federal prosecutor, served as counsel to Sen. Orrin Hatch when Hatch was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Liu, also a former federal prosecutor, served as a senior official in the Justice Department's national security and civil divisions during the second Bush administration. Miner was a federal prosecutor in Alabama before he was hired to work for Sessions in the Senate.
Nash is a former judge on the District of Columbia Superior Court. He was a senior official in the Justice Department — including a year working for Hatch on the Senate Judiciary Committee — before he was confirmed to Superior Court in 2010.
O'Scannlain is a private practice lawyer who has practiced in Washington for more than a decade and is affiliated with the Federalist Society. Her father is Ninth Circuit Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain.
Nash declined to comment. Lin, Friedrich, Miner, Liu, and O'Scannlain did not return requests for comment or couldn't be reached on Friday.