WASHINGTON — U.S. District Court Judge Kurt Engelhardt of New Orleans is officially getting a promotion to the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The U.S. Senate confirmed Engelhardt's nomination to the appeals court by President Donald Trump on Wednesday by a 62-to-34 vote.
Engelhardt, who's spent 17 years on the federal bench and was first nominated to a district court post by former President George W. Bush, will soon join the three-state 5th Circuit. The court hears appeals from federal courts in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
Engelhardt, 58, is the second Trump nominee confirmed to a New Orleans-based seat on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in recent weeks. Kyle Duncan, a Washington, D.C., litigator and Baton Rouge native, was confirmed on a narrower 50-47 vote in late April.
A dozen Democrats and a liberal-leaning independent — Maine Sen. Angus King — crossed over to vote for Engelhardt's confirmation on Wednesday, a relatively strong measure of bipartisan support compared to other Trump nominees for circuit-court posts.
The New Orleans judge is the 16th Trump nominee for a federal appeals court judgeship to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Engelhardt, who earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Louisiana State University, is perhaps best known for presiding over the high-profile federal prosecution of New Orleans Police Department officers for their roles in the post-Katrina shootings on Danziger Bridge and ensuing cover-up.
A federal jury convicted four NOPD officers of shooting unarmed civilians and killing two on the bridge over the city’s Industrial Canal. Those officers, along with a homicide detective who investigated the case for the NOPD, were also found guilty of staging an elaborate cover-up to hide the crimes.
Engelhardt initially sentenced four of the five former officers to decades in prison. But he controversially later tossed out the convictions after it turned out two top deputies for then-New Orleans U.S. Attorney Jim Letten had posted anonymous prolific comments on Nola.com news stories about the case and others.
Another federal prosecutor based in Washington, D.C., also commented using a pseudonym on some stories about the case. None of the commenters participated directly in the prosecution of the case and no evidence was presented indicating any of the jurors had read the comments.
Engelhardt in January told senators the decision to overturn the verdicts was "the most difficult" of his lengthy legal career but defended the move, calling the commenting "grotesque prosecutorial misconduct."
All five officers eventually pleaded guilty in deals with federal prosecutors and received new, shorter sentences ranging from probation to 12 years.
Both of Louisiana's Republican U.S. senators supported Engelhardt throughout the confirmation process. Sen. John Kennedy, a member of the Judiciary Committee, called Engelhardt "one of the smartest, most legally thoughtful people I know" in a statement praising his confirmation.
"Judge Engelhardt received strong bipartisan support because of his stellar experience and qualifications," said Sen. Bill Cassidy. "I know he will do a great job upholding the Constitution as written, and I’m proud to see him join Kyle Duncan on U.S. 5th Circuit."
At his confirmation hearing, some Democratic senators also questioned Engelhardt on rulings he's made in federal sexual harassment lawsuits, with several senators suggesting he'd perhaps let companies skate despite evidence of abusive treatment.
He largely declined to discuss specifics in those cases but said he tried to strictly apply the relevant federal law and binding higher-court precedent when considering the cases.
Engelhardt's extensive trial experience during his tenure as a federal district judge appeared to bolster his support in the Senate. The American Bar Association's committee that evaluates federal judicial nominees gave Engelhardt their highest rating of "well-qualified."
And while he's known as a conservative jurist and was once a member of the anti-abortion group Louisiana Lawyers for Life, he's largely avoided publicly commenting on divisive political issues.
That made Engelhardt a less controversial pick than Duncan, who'd risen to prominence as a talented and accomplished litigator in a range of socially conservative legal battles.
Duncan's lengthy record fighting against gay marriage and defending abortion restrictions made him a major target of liberal activist groups. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, considered among the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, was the only non-Republican to vote for Duncan.
Engelhardt, in contrast, received support not only from a number of red-state Democrats like Manchin but also got backing from a handful of Democrats from solidly blue states.