WASHINGTON — On the campaign trail, from the debate stage and in private fund-raisers, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota trumpets her years of experience as a lawmaker and her bipartisan appeal as a pragmatist as the central assets that would make her the toughest Democratic nominee to face off against President Trump.
But one aspect of her record in particular has frustrated and even outraged some in her own party: her support for Mr. Trump’s judges.
Last year, Ms. Klobuchar’s willingness to aid the Trump administration in its sweeping transformation of the federal judiciary earned Ms. Klobuchar an F grade from a liberal advocacy group focused on the federal judiciary.
From 2017 to 2018, Ms. Klobuchar voted to advance Mr. Trump’s judicial confirmations 64 percent of the time, according to Demand Justice, the advocacy group. The other two senators still in the Democratic race, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, voted slightly less than half the time to advance Mr. Trump’s nominations.
But Ms. Klobuchar’s votes shifted in 2019, the year she announced her presidential campaign. Last year, Ms. Klobuchar voted for far fewer of Mr. Trump’s judges over all and none of his appeals court nominees, according to Demand Justice — a shift her campaign attributes to a protest by Democratic senators to rule changes forced through by Republicans in early 2019.
For Ms. Klobuchar, that record puts her at odds with a party base that sees any compromise with the president as a capitulation to an administration many view as corrupt and immoral. Her decision to back many of Mr. Trump’s judicial nominees in the first two years of his administration threatens to undermine a central theme of her candidacy: that Ms. Klobuchar is a battle-tested legislator who has been “in the arena” fighting for progressive values in the Senate.
“Amy Klobuchar was an accomplice in the conservative capture of the courts,” said Meagan Hatcher-Mays, the director of democracy policy for Indivisible, a liberal grass-roots group that sprang up after Mr. Trump’s election and has not made an endorsement in the primary race. “What a lot of people don’t understand is that Trump is temporary but these judges are there for life.”
More than three years into his presidency, Mr. Trump has installed judges at the fastest pace of any president in decades. If current trends hold, a quarter of federal judges will be Trump appointees by the end of this year, according to an analysis by The Economist. Even if Mr. Trump loses in November, those justices will remain on the bench, leaving them in position to impede or block the liberal proposals that Democratic presidential candidates like Ms. Klobuchar promise to deliver.
Their impact is already apparent.
Less than a year after Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt was nominated by Mr. Trump and confirmed by the Senate to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, he voted to strike down part of the Affordable Care Act in December, putting the health care law in legal limbo.
Less than a year after his confirmation to the 11th Circuit bench, Judge Kevin Newsom voted to throw out a lawsuit filed against officials at a Florida jail by an inmate who alleged that people in a mental health unit were forced to walk barefoot in cells covered in bodily fluids.
And about a year and half after he was confirmed to the Eighth Circuit, Judge David R. Stras wrote the majority opinion as the appeals court ruled that a Minnesota video company could refuse to provide services to same-sex couples because of the owners’ Christian beliefs.
Most Senate Democrats fiercely objected to all three judicial nominations, and a majority of the caucus voted against them. The ranks of opposition included nearly all of the party’s senators who would run for president, except Ms. Klobuchar, who voted to confirm all three.
Ms. Klobuchar’s campaign declined a request for an interview with the senator, instead sending a statement that attributed the change in her voting pattern to the effort by Senate Republicans to limit the required debate time on judicial nominees to two hours from as many as 30.
“This is pretty basic — every single Democratic senator’s support for judicial nominees dropped significantly when the Republicans forced through a rule change to further limit debate on judicial nominees,” the campaign said.
Ms. Klobuchar does not see her votes as a mistake, the campaign added. “Every senator running for president has voted to support judges who later made decisions they disagreed with,” the statement said.
Her opponents in the primary race see an opportunity to undermine her campaign message about judgment and experience.
In the Democratic debate last week, Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., laced into Ms. Klobuchar’s record on judicial nominees and accused her of voting for Mr. Trump’s nominations more than any other senator still in the race. “If you’re going to run based on your record of voting in Washington, then you have to own those votes,” he said.
Ms. Klobuchar contested Mr. Buttigieg’s assertion and snapped back: “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete. But let me tell you what it’s like to be in the arena.”
The criticism is likely to continue as the race becomes increasingly contentious heading into the South Carolina primary and the Super Tuesday contests.
At least two of the judges backed by Ms. Klobuchar — Judge Stras and Judge Newsom — have been listed on Mr. Trump’s shortlist of candidates he would consider to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court.
Perhaps none of Ms. Klobuchar’s votes surprised more of her fellow Democrats than her support for Judge Stras, a conservative judge from her home state.
At every stage of the Senate confirmation process, Ms. Klobuchar opted against putting a roadblock before Judge Stras’s nomination — breaking ranks with her fellow Minnesota senator at the time, Al Franken.
Mr. Franken believed Judge Stras was too conservative and feared the Trump administration would use his appointment to the Eighth Circuit to build a case to nominate him to the Supreme Court. He wasn’t alone: Judge Stras’s nomination was opposed by many civil rights, abortion rights and human rights organizations, which raised questions about his record and conservative views.
At Judge Stras’s confirmation hearing, Mr. Franken said he had “expressed severe reservations” about him in meetings with the White House, based on his previous rulings and what he saw as a partisan tilt in some of those decisions. “I voiced concerns about his professional experience, which signaled a very conservative view of the law,” Mr. Franken said.
Ms. Klobuchar had a different view: While Mr. Franken opted against returning his “blue slip” — a piece of blue paper with a senator’s opinion of the nominee on it — Ms. Klobuchar did.
Historically, the refusal to return a blue slip by a home-state senator would be the end of a nominee’s consideration. But the split between the Minnesotans gave Republicans a rationale to proceed with Judge Stras’s nomination despite Mr. Franken’s opposition.
When Judge Stras came before the committee, Ms. Klobuchar introduced him. While she said she was “deeply concerned” about the end of the blue slip process, she expressed no similarly grave reservations about Judge Stras, lavishing praise on his record of public service, the respect he garnered from other judges in the state and his work as a law professor.
“I chose to introduce this nominee because at this moment, a time in our history I believe that in some small way it is important that we respect those that we don’t always agree with because we must restore that respect for our courts,” she said. “Thank you for your public service, Justice Stras.”
Before the nomination came to the floor of the Senate for a final vote, Lambda Legal, a national organization that fights for the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, sent a letter to every senator, expressing concern about whether Judge Stras would adhere to civil rights rulings by the Supreme Court. The group said he had questioned lines of the majority opinion in a ruling that struck down a Texas sodomy law as unconstitutional.
Other groups, like the N.A.A.C.P., said the judge’s record showed “hostility” toward civil rights.
But he was confirmed in January 2018, with just seven Democrats, including Ms. Klobuchar, voting yes. By this time Mr. Franken had resigned, and his replacement, Senator Tina Smith, voted against the nomination.
“Judge Stras has lived up to our bad expectations, and to the extent that Senator Klobuchar had information from groups like Lambda Legal telling her that we had these concerns and still moved ahead, that was a disappointment to us,” said Sharon M. McGowan, the chief strategy officer at Lambda Legal.
Others worried that by backing Judge Stras, Ms. Klobuchar was helping the Trump administration prepare to stack the Supreme Court. By giving Judge Stras a bipartisan vote, these critics argued, Ms. Klobuchar was handing Republicans a potential argument for him in a future Supreme Court confirmation fight.
“As Stras showed up on Trump’s shortlist for the Supreme Court, NARAL was one of the groups expressing concern about his record,” said Ilyse Hogue, the president of the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America. “We disagreed with Senator Klobuchar’s position and were disappointed.”
Some activists remain mystified by Ms. Klobuchar’s choice to expend so much political capital for a conservative jurist favored by Mr. Trump.
“Amy Klobuchar bent over backward to get this guy confirmed to the bench,” said Ms. Hatcher-Mays of Indivisible. “It was bizarre how badly she wanted this very bad judge to get confirmed for life, and she ultimately succeeded. I think we’ve seen what a grave misstep it was.”
Ms. Klobuchar’s campaign said she voted for Judge Stras because “given the choices, on balance she thought he was better than the other candidates who would have been nominated from other states.”
“Of course Senator Klobuchar disagrees with his comments, just as she has not and will not agree with every one of his opinions,” the campaign said, referring to his writings before he was nominated. “She has made clear that Judge Stras was not the judge that she would ever recommend to the White House. In fact, she recommended other candidates.”
And, the campaign added, Democrats should not worry about her selection of future judges. “As president, Amy Klobuchar will prioritize reversing the damage done by Trump-appointed judges by quickly moving to fill vacancies with judges in the vein of Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, Breyer and Ginsberg,” it said.
Though Democratic apprehension over Mr. Trump’s judicial nominees has mostly been rooted in policy concerns, one nominee was opposed merely over competence: Judge Charles B. Goodwin, before his confirmation to Federal District Court in Oklahoma City, had been given an unusual “not qualified” rating by the American Bar Association.
The association expressed concerns about his work habits, including “his frequent absence from the courthouse until midafternoon.”
Only six Democrats voted to confirm him, including Ms. Klobuchar.
Lisa Lerer reported from Washington, and Nick Corasaniti from Minneapolis. Alain Delaquérière contributed research.