President Donald Trump's picks for two vacancies on the federal judiciary, as well as his candidate for U.S. Attorney in Baton Rouge, are now awaiting confirmation votes from the U.S. Senate after the Judiciary Committee Thursday advanced the nominees.
The committee approved U.S. District Court Judge Kurt Engelhardt, up for a seat on the influential New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, one month after Democrats on the panel grilled the 57-year-old judge over his handling of the high-profile Danziger Bridge police shooting and corruption case.
Attorney Barry Ashe, currently a partner at the firm of Stone Pigman who was nominated by Trump for a federal district court judgeship in New Orleans, also was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
So too was Trump's nominee to lead the Baton Rouge U.S. Attorney's Office, Brandon Fremin. A Marine veteran, Fremin now heads the Louisiana Attorney General's Office's criminal division. He previously worked as an assistant district attorney in East Baton Rouge Parish.
Fremin would succeed former U.S. Attorney Walt Green, a fellow Marine veteran and Obama appointee who stepped down not long after Trump assumed office. Unlike federal judges, who hold their positions for life, U.S. attorney jobs are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president and are generally replaced at the end of an administration.
Corey Amundson, a career federal prosecutor and Green's former top deputy, has led the office on an interim basis since Green stepped down. Amundson did not pursue the permanent post.
Fremin sailed through the committee on a voice vote while Ashe was endorsed 20-1, with Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono casting the lone vote against him.
Engelhardt cleared the committee with a closer vote, 16-5. Several Democrats on the committee backed his confirmation, including Sen. Diane Feinstein of California, the committee's ranking member. But six senators — all Democrats — opposed him.
“All of these nominees have stellar legal qualifications and will serve Louisiana well," said Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, a member of the Senate's Judiciary Committee and a backer of all three nominees, in a statement.
Kennedy and fellow Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, also a Republican, both vetted potential nominees for federal judgeships and U.S. attorney jobs in the state.
"Confirming good, qualified judges and U.S. attorneys who will uphold the Constitution is one of our top priorities in the Senate, and Kurt Englehardt, Barry Ashe and Brandon Fremin fit the bill," Cassidy said.
Engelhardt, who's spent 17 years on the federal bench in New Orleans and is generally highly regarded in local legal circles, proved to be the most controversial.
His decision to throw out the convictions of five New Orleans Police Department officers in the post-Katrina shootings on the Danziger Bridge and an ensuing cover-up over allegations of misconduct by federal prosecutors dominated Engelhardt's January 10 hearing before the committee.
Engelhardt blasted the New Orleans U.S. Attorney's office and U.S. Department of Justice after it surfaced that a pair of top deputies anonymously commented on Nola.com news stories covering the case. Engelhardt called that behavior alarming and told the Senate Judiciary Committee in January that the government appeared to hinder his efforts to get to the bottom of the scandal.
Engelhardt acknowledged there was no evidence presented that jurors actually read the comments or were swayed by the anonymous posts. But the judge defended his decision by arguing that pulling apart the effects of the years-long commenting scandal would've been virtually impossible and that prosecutors should be held to high standards.
The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a Washington-based umbrella organization of civil rights groups, cited the ruling, along with Engelhardt's decision to dismiss a number of sexual-harassment suits, in urging senators to vote against Engelhardt's confirmation.
Ashe came before the same committee just after Engelhardt's hour-long hearing and faced far less intense scrutiny. None of the senators on the panel asked Ashe a question, instead zeroing in on the more controversial record of a Utah nominee appearing alongside him.
All three now await a confirmation vote from the full U.S. Senate. It's unclear when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell plans to bring their nominations up on the Senate floor.
A crowded legislative calendar and time-consuming parliamentary procedures can make scheduling a confirmation vote an involved process.
Several other Louisiana federal judicial nominees — including Kyle Duncan, a nominee for another seat on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals — have been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee but haven't been considered yet by the Senate.
No Trump nominees for Louisiana-based jobs in the federal judiciary, in fact, have yet been confirmed to their posts.