VanDyke confirmed to 9th Circuit despite claims he’s ‘not a Nevadan’

Lawrence VanDyke at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, Oct. 30, 2019. (Committee video screengrab)

WASHINGTON — A conservative Trump administration official with weak ties to Nevada has won a lifetime seat to a powerful appeals court with jurisdiction over the state.

The appointment to the prized seat — held by retiring judge Jay Bybee of Nevada — came over strong objections from both of the state’s U.S. senators. 

Democrats Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen were among 44 senators who on Wednesday voted against the nomination of Lawrence VanDyke to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco. 

Fifty-one senators voted in support of the nomination, and five were absent.

In explaining their opposition, Cortez Masto and Rosen said on the Senate floor Tuesday that VanDyke has no meaningful connection to the state and pointed to his lack of qualifications and his record in support of far-right political views on a variety of social policy issues.

This administration has nominated someone to serve on the Nevada seat of the Ninth Circuit who, and let me be clear, is not a Nevadan,” Rosen said.

Born in Texas and raised in Montana, VanDyke began his legal career in Washington, D.C. He worked as a lawyer in Texas and served briefly as solicitor general of Montana before mounting a failed bid for the state’s Supreme Court. 

More recently, he spent four years as Nevada’s solicitor general under Attorney General Adam Laxalt and now works at the U.S. Department of Justice. 

VanDyke succeeds Bybee, who was appointed by President George W. Bush. Nevada’s other Ninth Circuit seat is held by Johnnie Rawlinson, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton.

The powerful federal appeals court covers the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. 

VanDyke’s confirmation is the latest victory in an ongoing effort by President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to reshape the federal bench. 

Since Trump took office, nearly 200 of his federal judicial nominees have been confirmed by the Senate — more than were confirmed by recent presidents at the same point in their presidencies.

VanDyke’s confirmation also marks a further erosion of the Senate’s “blue slip” tradition in that it comes despite strong objections from his home state senators. 

“It’s unfortunate to see this chamber disregard Nevada’s voice and move forward with Mr. VanDyke’s nomination,” Rosen said Tuesday.

A warning from Cortez Masto

Cortez Masto said the nomination “sets a dangerous precedent” and would allow future presidents to nominate “virtual outsiders” to courts across the country over senators’ objections. 

“How would my colleagues feel when a future administration attempts to do the same thing to their state? When a Democratic president, perhaps, nominates a Californian to sit on a district court in Kentucky or a lifelong D.C. resident is sent to Texas?” Cortez Masto said. 

The senators also objected to VanDyke’s record and qualifications.

The American Bar Association found VanDyke “not qualified” for the seat, an evaluation based on dozens of interviews with lawyers, judges and another person who worked with him. Interviewees considered him “arrogant,” “lazy,” and “an ideologue,” the report asserted.

Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy — the longest-serving member of the Senate and a former chairman of the Judiciary Committee — called it one of the most alarming ABA ratings he’d ever seen.

During his confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee this fall, VanDyke broke down in tears in response to the report. “It is a fundamental belief of mine that all people are created in the image of God, and they should all be treated with dignity and respect,” he said.

Conservatives have taken issue with the ABA report and defended VanDyke’s record.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) pointed to VanDyke’s professional credentials during the hearing, including stints as solicitor general in Montana and then in Nevada. “If this man is not qualified, I’m not sure who is,” Lee said.

Nevada’s senators, for their part, also objected to VanDyke’s record on issues such as reproductive and LGBTQ rights, gun violence and the environment.

“I am deeply disappointed to see Mr. VanDyke confirmed to a Nevada seat on the Ninth Circuit,” said Rosen in a statement released Wednesday. “Mr. VanDyke’s lack of ties to Nevada, Not Qualified rating from the ABA, extreme views, and history of problematic statements and partisan writings are disqualifying for this lifetime role on one of the highest courts in the nation. It is my hope that Mr. VanDyke will put aside his ideological agenda and work to serve the people of Nevada in good faith, and with equal treatment under the law for all.”

During his 15-year career, he has attacked LGBTQ equality and supported restrictions on abortion, according to a report by the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, a liberal advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

In a statement released Wednesday, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada Executive Director Lindsey Harmon said: “With his extreme anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs, VanDyke’s appointment for the Nevada seat on the Ninth Circuit is wholly unrepresentative of a state where not only do the majority of constituents support abortion rights, but also where the right to safe, legal abortion has been protected in the state constitution since the 1990s.”

VanDyke has also sought to undermine environmental protections on clean and and water, supports opening public lands to mining and oil and gas drilling, and is a longtime supporter of the National Rifle Association, the influential lobbying group that opposes gun safety laws, according to the the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights report.

“In Nevada, we believe in Second Amendment rights,” Cortez Masto said, “but we also agree — as almost all Americans do — that commonsense measures like background checks keep us safer.”

Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens is a Washington D.C. reporter for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes Nevada Current.