WASHINGTON — President Trump on Friday nominated Judge Justin Walker, a protégé of Senator Mitch McConnell, to a vacancy on the influential United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, touching off what is likely to be a contentious confirmation fight in the Senate.
Judge Walker, 37, a native of Louisville, has served for less than six months as a United States District Court judge in Kentucky, having been confirmed for the post last year despite receiving an “unqualified” rating from the American Bar Association because of his lack of experience.
But he is a personal favorite of Mr. McConnell, a Kentucky Republican and the majority leader who has built a confirmation machine for conservative jurists named by Mr. Trump, and who ushered Judge Walker into an Oval Office meeting this year and later lobbied the president to elevate him.
Mr. McConnell, who has known Judge Walker since he was in high school, called him “an outstanding legal scholar and a leading light in a new generation of federal judges.” In a statement, he said, “I am proud that President Trump’s search took him outside the Beltway and into the Bluegrass.”
As the House worked on a second round of coronavirus response legislation in mid-March, Mr. McConnell recessed the Senate for the weekend and flew back to Louisville for Judge Walker’s investiture, drawing criticism from Democrats who said he was ignoring the pandemic. He was accompanied by Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who formally swore in Judge Walker. The new judge had been a clerk for Justice Kavanaugh on the appeals court and for Justice Anthony M. Kennedy on the Supreme Court. Video of the event showed Judge Walker bumping fists with both Justice Kavanaugh and Mr. McConnell after he took the oath.
The District of Columbia appeals court is considered a steppingstone to the Supreme Court and is also viewed as a highly influential arbiter of many of Washington’s disputes over federal policy and separation of powers. Democrats considered placing judges on the court to be so crucial during the Obama administration that they changed Senate rules in 2013 to eliminate the 60-vote threshold on confirmations to overcome Republican filibusters against nominees to the court. That change means Democrats would need Republicans to oppose Judge Walker if they hoped to derail his nomination. All Republicans present voted in favor of his confirmation last year.
Still, advocates on both sides anticipate a battle over his selection given the importance of the court, Judge Walker’s limited experience, his conservative record and the fact that he could easily serve for at least three decades as the youngest nominee to the court since 1983. He is the second-youngest person nominated by Mr. Trump to an appeals court.
“Barring a Supreme Court vacancy, this will be the biggest judicial fight this year,” said Mike Davis, a conservative judicial activist who founded the Article III Project and is a former nominations counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee.
During Justice Kavanaugh’s own confirmation battle, Judge Walker, then a law professor at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law, was an ardent defender of his former boss, appearing regularly on television and in news articles to strongly push back against attacks on Judge Kavanaugh.
“Judge Walker was an unrelenting defender of Justice Kavanaugh during the left’s unprecedented smear campaign,” Carrie Severino, the president of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, said on Twitter after his nomination. “I expect Walker to bring similar courage with him to the DC Circuit as he defends the rule of law.”
Judge Walker is a graduate of Duke University and Harvard Law School and had worked as an appellate lawyer in the Washington office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher before returning to Louisville to practice law and teach. He is a member of the Federalist Society, the conservative group that has been central to the extremely successful push by the Trump administration, in concert with Mr. McConnell, to place scores of conservatives on the federal courts.
In his writings, Judge Walker has exhibited a strongly conservative view. In one article, he labeled the Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act as “catastrophic.” Defending Justice Kavanaugh, Judge Walker hailed a conservative judicial revolution that he said would bring “an end to affirmative action, an end to successful litigation about religious displays and prayers, an end to bans on semiautomatic rifles and an end to almost all judicial restrictions on abortion.”
In opposing the confirmation last year, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the minority leader, pointed to Judge Walker’s lack of experience and said the only reason for his nomination seemed to be “his membership in the Federalist Society and his far-right wing views on health care, civil rights, and executive power.”
Judge Walker would succeed Judge Thomas B. Griffith, who was nominated in 2004 by President George W. Bush after Senate Democrats filibustered the nomination of Miguel Estrada and intensified the fight over judicial confirmations that is still underway. Judge Griffith announced last month that he would step down in the fall.
Judge Walker’s confirmation would not immediately change the balance on the court, which now consists of seven judges nominated by Democratic presidents and four by Republicans. He would be the third judge Mr. Trump has placed on the court.
Mr. McConnell has emphasized that he intends for the Senate to continue confirming judges through the end of the year, adopting the motto of “leave no vacancy behind.” With openings diminishing, Mr. McConnell and other Senate Republicans have been reaching out to Republican-nominated judges eligible for retirement to sound them out about their plans.
That approach has drawn the scrutiny of progressive activists who have accused the Republicans of pressuring judges to quit.
“The nomination of a Mitch McConnell crony, who has been rated unqualified by his peers, to the second highest court in the country is beyond suspicious,” said Christopher Kang, the chief counsel for the progressive group Demand Justice, who called for an investigation into the vacancy.
The Senate is currently in recess and not scheduled to return to Washington until late April at the earliest. A hearing on Judge Walker’s nomination is likely to be at least two months away, but the process of assembling the required paperwork and background checks could go unusually quickly since he was confirmed to the lower court last year.