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Susan Collins Under Fire For Confirming Judge Who Earned Unanimous ‘Not-Qualified’ Rating

Carolyn Kaster
Associated Press
Susan Collins on Capitol Hill in Washington in November.

Earlier this week, Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine voted with the GOP-controlled Senate to confirm Judge Steven Grasz to a federal appeals court. She did so despite objections from LGBT and pro-choice groups, and a unanimous unqualified rating from The American Bar Association.

Collins has won praise from LGBT rights and pro-choice groups for her past positions on issues. But now, she’s taking heat from the Maine Democratic Party and other organizations for voting to confirm Grasz, who has said that the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision was “moral bankruptcy.”

He also was a board member of the Nebraska Family Alliance, an organization that opposed protections based on sexual orientation, and has supported conversion therapy for LGBT minors.

Grasz’s advocacy on those issues is a big reason why the bar association says it voted 14-0 to rate him as unqualified for the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, a unanimous rating that has only been issued three times in nearly 30 years.

“I was concerned about the ABA rating. That’s something I always look at,” Collins said in an interview with Maine Public.

She said she had also considered the ABA’s assessment when voicing concerns over the inexperience of Brett Talley, who President Donald Trump nominated for a lifetime appointment to the Alabama District Court.

Talley’s nomination was eventually withdrawn. But Collins says she decided to support Grasz after interviewing him. She says she emerged from the meeting believing that the ABA selection committee did not treat him fairly.

“I did not find any evidence at all to indicate that he would be prejudiced in his rulings or that he would not follow precedent,” Collins said.

According to the ABA’s report, it’s not uncommon for judicial nominees to hold political or ideological positions. But the ABA believed Grasz’s positions on LGBT rights and abortion are so strong that reviewers don’t believe he can shelve his biases and view related cases with an open mind.

The ABA rating was raised by Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and other Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee as they grilled Grasz during his confirmation hearing last month.

“Mr. Grasz I assume you’re keenly aware that you are the first circuit court judge since 2006 to receive a unanimous not-qualified rating from the ABA, and that the last nominee who had such a rating was withdrawn,” Whitehouse said during the hearing.

“That is my understanding senator,” Grasz said.

But Republicans like Sen. Jeff Flake characterized the ABA as a partisan organization that gives higher ratings to judicial appointments by Democratic presidents.

“I think the ABA’s long history of political, liberal activism makes it very hard to see how their process isn’t biased,” Flake said during the confirmation hearing.

Such criticism from Republicans is not new — just as Democrats have ignored the ABA when it gives high grades to conservative judges.

The organization has played an on-again, off-again role in the formal process of vetting federal judges. President George W. Bush’s administration effectively exiled the ABA for eight years over perceived bias, President Barack Obama then reinstated the ABA in the judicial nomination process and, earlier this year, Trump exiled the ABA all over again.

But as Whitehouse noted during Grasz’s hearing, the organization still rated all but two of Trump’s 40-plus nominees as either qualified or well qualified. Among them was Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, who received the ABA’s highest rating but who was opposed by many Democrats anyway.

“So I think it would be hard for the committee to ascribe the outcome in this case to a general partisanship of the ABA process. It would not be consistent with the facts,” Whitehouse said.

Nevertheless, Collins believes Grasz will be evenhanded when overseeing cases that test his personal views on LGBT rights and abortion. She also noted that Grasz received recommendations from over 100 lawyers, including a former U.S. attorney under Obama.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.