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Republicans have put President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee on the bench, and they're now in a position to fill dozens more federal judgeships — and reshape some of the nation's highest courts.

Democrats have few ways to stop them.

The Republicans' opportunity comes with the GOP in control of Congress and the White House, about 120 vacancies in federal district and appeals courts to be filled and after years of partisan fights over judicial nominations.

Frustrated by Republican obstruction in 2013, then-majority Democrats changed Senate rules so judicial nominations for those trial and appeals courts are filibuster-proof, meaning it takes only 51 votes, a simple majority in the 100-member Senate, for confirmation.

Today, Senate Republicans hold 52 seats.

The Democratic rules change did not apply to Supreme Court nominations. But Senate Republicans are now in the majority, and they changed the rules in similar fashion this month to confirm federal Judge Neil Gorsuch to the high court over Democratic opposition. As a result, the GOP can almost guarantee confirmation of future Supreme Court justices, as well, if there are more openings with Trump in office and Republicans are in the majority.

"The Trump administration does have an opportunity to really put its mark on the future of the federal judiciary," says Leonard Leo, the executive vice president of the conservative Federalist Society and an adviser to Trump on the Gorsuch nomination.

Reflecting a conservative judicial philosophy, Leo says the unusual number of vacancies that Trump is inheriting could reorient the courts of appeals, in particular, "in a way that better reflects the traditional judicial role, which is interpreting the law according to its text and placing a premium on the Constitution's limits on government power."

That philosophy was a priority for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, whom Gorsuch replaced, and Trump has said he wants the federal judiciary to reflect those values.

There are currently 20 vacancies in the federal appeals courts, which are one step below the Supreme Court, and roughly 100 more in district courts, where cases are originally tried. Former President Barack Obama had around half that number of vacancies when he took office in 2009. Of the current vacancies, 49 are considered judicial emergencies, a designation based on how many court filings are in the district and how long the seat has been open.

As the White House has focused on the Gorsuch nomination, Trump has so far only nominated one lower-court judge, Amul R. Thapar, a friend of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, for the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.


Mississippi does not have to publicly disclose details of how it carries out executions, the state's highest court ruled Thursday.

In a 7-2 decision, the Mississippi Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit by the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center that argued the state's corrections department hadn't disclosed enough information in response to a 2014 public records request.

A chancery judge had ordered more information disclosed, but the state appealed. Last year, while the appeal was still pending, legislators changed the law, joining states nationwide in shielding drug purchases and other execution methods from public disclosure.

The state argues that releasing names of drug suppliers could allow death penalty opponents to terminate the supply using public pressure. States have had increasing trouble obtaining execution drugs because some pharmaceutical makers don't want their medicines used for that purpose.

MacArthur Center lawyer Jim Craig disputes that disclosure is a threat, saying it's important to have a full accounting of where Mississippi is getting its death penalty drugs and how it plans to use them.

"There's no threat against any of these pharmacies," Craig said Thursday. "There's no economic threat; there's no physical threat. And across the country this is just being used as a dodge to prevent people from knowing where these dollars are going."

Presiding Supreme Court Justice Michael Randolph wrote in Thursday's decision that the judges must apply the new law to the pre-existing dispute, because lawmakers didn't carve out an exception for ongoing requests and lawsuits.



President Donald Trump's revised travel ban has suffered another federal court setback after a judge in Maryland rejected a revised measure that bans travel targeting six predominantly Muslim countries.

Judge Theodore Chuang ruled Thursday in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a case brought near the nation's capital by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups representing immigrants, refugees and their families. The groups argued that the underlying rationale of the ban was to discriminate against Muslims, making it unconstitutional.

Chuang granted a preliminary injunction on a nationwide basis. He declined to issue an injunction blocking the entire executive order, saying that the plaintiffs didn't sufficiently develop their argument that the temporary ban on refugees offends the establishment clause and didn't provide sufficient basis to establish the invalidity of the rest of the order.

He called Trump's own statements about intentions to impose a Muslim ban "highly relevant." Trump's second executive order does include changes from the first order, Chuang noted, such as the removal of a preference for religious minorities in the refugee process.

"Despite these changes, the history of public statements continues to provide a convincing case that the purpose of the Second Executive Order remains the realization of the long-envisioned Muslim ban," he said.

Details of the implementation of the orders also indicate that national security isn't the primary purpose of the ban, Chuang said.

"The fact that the White House took the highly irregular step of first introducing the travel ban without receiving the input and judgment of the relevant national security agencies strongly suggests that the religious purpose was primary and the national security purpose, even if legitimate, is a secondary, post hoc rationale," he said.



North Carolina's Supreme Court on Monday again blocked a state law approved by Republicans that strips the new Democratic governor of powers to oversee elections.

A lower appeals court briefly let the law to take effect last week, allowing a revamped state elections board to meet for the first time Friday. It's one of the changes passed in late December that shift power over running elections away from Gov. Roy Cooper.

"We are pleased the Supreme Court has put the injunction back in place until the judges can hear and decide the full case" early next month, Cooper spokeswoman Noelle Talley wrote in an email.

The law ends the practice of allowing the governor's political party to hold majorities on all state and county elections boards. Instead of Democrats holding sway over running elections and resolving voting disputes, elections board positions would be evenly divided between major-party partisans.

Republicans would control elections during even-numbered years, when big races for president, legislature or other major statewide offices are held. The measure also merges the state ethics and elections boards into one.

Lawyers representing state House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, did not respond to emails seeking comment after the Supreme Court's decision.

Cooper, Moore and Berger are also fighting in court over another new law aiming to restrict the Democrat's ability to alter the state's recent conservative direction.

A panel of three state trial court judges is considering whether to continue blocking a law requiring Senate confirmation of Cooper's Cabinet secretaries.

The law requiring Senate consent to Cooper's top appointees came during a surprise special session barely a week after Republican incumbent Pat McCrory conceded to Cooper in their close gubernatorial race.


Poland's government says it is taking Russia to the United Nations' principal court over the continuing probe into the 2010 death of Poland's president in a plane crash in Russia and Moscow's refusal to turn over the wreckage.

The twin brother of late President Lech Kaczynski leads Poland's ruling party. Jaroslaw Kaczynski blames the crash on Moscow. He has made finding those responsible and recovering the plane's pieces for Poland's own investigation part of his political agenda.

Russian prosecutors say they still need the wreckage for their ongoing probe. Aviation experts said the crash was an accident. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said Wednesday that Poland is drafting up a complaint to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Netherlands.

The court rules on disputes between nations and gives advisory opinions on legal questions.


Wealthy powerbrokers. Special interest groups. Millions of dollars pouring in to elect conservatives or liberals.

It sounds like a typical election-year contest for Congress or a state legislature, but it's actually a high-stakes battle for institutions that were once considered above politics: state supreme courts. Political groups view control of the high courts as essential to either defending or thwarting state laws. And they are more and more willing to spend big to gain the advantage.

So far in the current election cycle, a record $14 million in independent money has been spent on television advertisements for state supreme court seats, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. That represents about half of all the money spent on the races, including the amount spent by the candidates themselves.

The final tally, which will not be known until after Election Day, is sure to be much higher and will probably shatter the previous outside spending record of $13.5 million, set in the 2011-12 election cycle.

"State supreme court elections have become increasingly high-cost and politicized," said Alicia Bannon, senior counsel at the Brennan Center. "Special interests have been putting a lot of money into those races, trying to shape who sits on the courts and ultimately the decisions the courts are making."

Not including uncontested races, some 52 seats in 27 states are in play Nov. 8, according to the Brennan Center's tally.

The U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United case helped accelerate outside spending on judicial campaigns, the type of spending that is not supposed to be done in coordination with the candidates themselves.


Republicans "can't just simply stonewall" nominees to the Supreme Court even if the president making the choice is Democrat Hillary Clinton, says the GOP chairman of the Judiciary Committee in a reaffirmation of the Senate's advise-and-consent role on judicial picks.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley's comments on Tuesday was a response to fellow Republican Sen. John McCain, who a day earlier vowed that Republicans would unite against any nominee Clinton puts forward if she becomes president. That unprecedented pledge raised the possibility that the Supreme Court would have to operate for four years of a Clinton term with one or more vacancies, rather than nine justices.

The court has had one vacancy for months since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February. Republicans have refused to consider President Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland, arguing that the next president should fill the opening.

"I think we have a responsibility to very definitely vet — if you want to use the word vet — whoever nominee that person puts forward," Grassley told radio reporters in Iowa. "We have the same responsibility for (Donald) Trump. We know more the type of people Trump would nominate because he's listed 20. They fall into the category of strict constructionists. As I heard about Hillary on the last debate, the type of people she's going to appoint, I would say they're judicial activists."

He added that the new president should make the choice and "if that new president happens to be Hillary. We can't just simply stonewall."

McCain's comments came in an interview with Philadelphia talk radio host Dom Giordano to promote the candidacy of Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., one of the more vulnerable GOP incumbents as Republicans scramble to hold onto their Senate majority.

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