During the presidential campaign, President-elect Donald Trump pledged to nominate pro-life Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade “automatically,” and he released a list of 21 candidates he would consider for a spot on the high court. The conservative legal organization the Federalist Society, as well as the Heritage Foundation, an influential right-wing think tank, helped draft the list. But since the election, some pro-life activists have been pushing the Trump team to jettison most of the people on his short list on the grounds that they aren’t sufficiently committed to overturning the landmark 1973 abortion ruling.
In mid-December, Andrew Schlafly, president of the Legal Center for the Defense of Life and son of the late anti-feminist icon Phyllis Schlafly, wrote an open letter to Trump, signed by more than 70 anti-abortion activists, urging him to appoint a Supreme Court justice with a “proven pro-life record.” In a not–so–subtle reminder that pro-life voters may have played a huge role in putting Trump in the White House despite his obvious moral failings, Schlafly wrote:
Exit polls in the election showed that 21% of voters felt that this issue of the Supreme Court was ‘the most important factor’ in determining for whom they voted. Among that group of voters, you defeated your opponent by a landslide of 15%, 56-41%.
“I’m worried that Trump’s advisers will pull a Souter,” Schlafly explains, referring to President George H.W. Bush’s nomination of Justice David Souter. Souter was something of a blank slate when he was nominated, and he proved to be far more liberal than Republicans had believed. When it comes to the Supreme Court, Schlafly and his supporters don’t want to leave anything to chance, which means a nominee who doesn’t just profess pro-life convictions, but has a documented track record of ruling in abortion cases. But Schlafly suspects some of the people advising Trump on a court pick want “a stealth candidate, someone without a record,” who would generate less opposition in a confirmation hearing.
Among those he’s singled out for supposedly pushing such a candidate is Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society—which Schlafly insists is “not a pro-life organization,” despite Leo’s stated opposition to abortion. (Leo did not respond to a request for comment.)
Among those whom Schlafly has targeted on Trump’s short list are some pretty stalwart conservative federal judges, including Diane Sykes, a 7th Circuit judge who reportedly ranks as one of Trump’s top two choices. Schlafly believes Sykes is not pro-life because as a Wisconsin* state court judge she sentenced two anti-abortion protesters to 60 days in jail for a clinic protest. Later, on the federal bench, she also helped strike down a law defunding Planned Parenthood—another black mark against her in his book. Another potential nominee, 10th Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed to the federal bench by George W. Bush, won’t be pro-life on the bench, according to Schlafly, because he doesn’t invoke the term “unborn child” in his decisions or public comments.
Candidates who meet Schlafly’s litmus test are few and far between, but there are two women from the highly conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Texas, Judges Edith Jones and Jennifer Elrod, who make the cut. Jones is a conservative poster gal who has been floated as a candidate for a GOP Supreme Court slot so many times that she’s been dubbed the “Susan Lucci” of Supreme Court nominations, after the soap opera star who was nominated 18 times for an Emmy before finally winning. As Tim Noah explained in Slate in 2005, “Presidents have been not choosing Jones since 1987,” back when Ronald Reagan needed a Supreme Court nominee to replace Robert Bork, whom the Senate rejected as too much of an extremist.
Today, Jones’ far-right views would make the late Bork look like a bleeding-heart liberal. In 2006, Jones made the Texas Observer’s list of worst judges in the state for rulings such as the one that upheld the execution of a man whose lawyer slept through his trial. Her performance in a sexual-harassment case was also noteworthy. “After hearing testimony that a woman had endured, among other things, a co-worker pinching her breast at work, Jones retorted, ‘Well, he apologized,'” wrote the Observer.
In 2014, lawyers and law students filed a judicial misconduct complaint against Jones over a speech she gave at a 2013 Federalist Society event. Jones allegedly said the death penalty provided a “positive service” to defendants because they are “likely to make peace with God only in the moment before imminent execution.” She also allegedly said, “African Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime” and “prone to commit acts of violence.” (Because there was no recording of Jones’ remarks, the complaint against her was dismissed.)
But for anti-abortion activists, her record is stellar: She was part of a three-judge panel that upheld a 2012 mandatory sonogram law in Texas, forcing doctors to give women seeking an abortion medically unnecessary information designed to persuade them to change their minds. In 2014, she was on a panel of judges considering a challenge to a Texas abortion law that closed 22 abortion clinics in the state. During oral arguments, she told lawyers for the Texas clinics that the 300-mile round trip some women would have to endure to reach a clinic under the new law was no big deal if they drove fast. The road, she said, was flat.
Elrod, who is also on Schlafly’s short list, wrote a circuit opinion in a preliminary phase of the case upholding that controversial law, which was struck down by the US Supreme Court last year in Women’s Whole Health v. Hellerstedt. In her opinion, Elrod gave almost complete deference to the state’s argument that the abortion-closing law was designed to protect women’s health, despite having no evidence to support that claim. She wrote, “In our circuit, we do not balance the wisdom or effectiveness of a law against the burdens the law imposes,” suggesting that the difficulties women might face obtaining an abortion in Texas were not relevant to her deliberations.
Florida Supreme Court Chief Judge Charles Canady is one of Trump’s potential candidates who meets with Schlafly’s approval as well. Canady, as a member of Congress in 1995, coined the term “partial-birth abortion” when he sponsored legislation banning dilation and extraction abortions in which doctors removed an intact fetus after collapsing its skull to minimize health complications in the woman. As a state court judge, he blocked a young woman from getting an abortion without her parents’ consent. His anti-abortion credentials are rock solid.
Schlafly complains that Trump’s advisers, including the Federalist Society’s Leo, are pushing him to tap younger judges while ignoring older, more proven judges such as Jones, who is 67, or Canady, 62. He wrote recently, “Mr. Leo’s approach runs afoul of conservative principles, which recognize that the longer someone is in D.C., the more liberal they generally get. That’s apparently true for some think tank executives as well, by the way.”
The anti-abortion movement as a whole has not gotten on board with Schlafly’s campaign, largely because everyone on Trump’s Supreme Court list is very conservative and likely to be hostile to abortion, even if they have not yet ruled on it. The signatories of Schlafly’s letter to Trump are B-listers of the anti-choice movement. Many of them represent state chapters of his late mother’s organization, the Eagle Forum, or the much-diminished Operation Rescue. But the most politically powerful anti-abortion groups such as Americans United for Life, National Right to Life, and the Family Research Council have not weighed in on his picks. Even anti-abortion stalwart Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, has shied away, despite being approached by Schlafly for support, saying that Schlafly’s letter “doesn’t reflect my judgment on all of the candidates.”
Ed Whelan, a former Scalia law clerk and attorney in the George W. Bush administration’s Department of Justice, has been one of the most outspoken conservative critics of Schlafly’s abortion purity campaign. He declined to comment for this story, but in his “Bench Notes” column in National Review, Whelan has explicitly defended potential Trump nominees from Schlafly’s attacks. He points out, for instance, that Schlafly’s own mother approved of the judges on Trump’s list before she died. In her last book, The Conservative Case for Trump, she and her co-author wrote, “It is to Trump’s credit that his shortlist is as good as it is.”
And he counters Schlafly’s criticism of the 7th Circuit’s Sykes by noting that while Sykes did rule in a case involving abortion protesters, “she didn’t sentence them for protesting abortion. She sentenced them for cementing their legs to the front of a car parked at the entrance to an abortion clinic and thus shutting down the clinic. What sentence does Schlafly believe Sykes should have imposed?”
But Whelan’s primary opposition to Schlafly’s campaign is that he believes the anti-abortion purists “want judges to indulge pro-life values to misread the law in order to reach pro-life results,” something he argues Scalia would never have approved of. Schlafly dismisses Whelan’s criticism as sour grapes: “Ed Whelan was a strident opponent of Trump himself.”
On Wednesday, during his first press conference since July, Trump said he would announce his Supreme Court choice during the first week or two after the inauguration. It’s unclear whether he’s taking Schlafly’s input under advisement. Neither Trump nor his advisers have responded to Schlafly. But Schlafly notes that his letter was featured on Fox News, and he’s hopeful it’s making an impact. “Nothing else a president does even compares to the significance of this decision,” Schlafly says, noting that its ramifications could last 30 years or more. Yet he thinks when it comes to the potential justices, Trump’s team hasn’t done its homework on the abortion issue, and he’s simply trying to fill in the research gaps. “Everybody knows that’s what’s at stake,” he says. “A very thorough vetting process is in order.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the state court on which Sykes served. She was a state court judge in Wisconsin, not Indiana.