Cable network CNN and corporate broadcast TV networks ABC, CBS, and NBC have largely failed to report on President Donald Trump’s successful push to confirm far-right Judges Justin Walker and Cory Wilson to lifetime appointments on the federal judiciary during the coronavirus pandemic. These networks similarly ignored or under-covered Trump’s other extreme judicial nominations, such as those of now-confirmed U.S. Court of Appeals Judges Steven Menashi and Lawrence VanDyke.
Walker was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and Wilson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, continuing Trump’s overhaul of the federal judiciary with predominantly white and male conservative judges. Notably, Wilson’s confirmation marked Trump’s 200th judicial confirmation under the direction of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and, for the first time in at least 40 years, there are no remaining circuit court vacancies in the nation. In total, the Senate has confirmed seven judges during the pandemic.
CNN reported on Walker's and Wilson’s nominations for less than 2 minutes, and corporate broadcast networks failed to report on them at all
From the announcement of Walker's and Wilson’s nominations on May 4, TV news outlets had significant disparities in their coverage. Fox News and MSNBC dedicated the most time to them by far. Corporate broadcast news outlets ABC, CBS, and NBC did not make a single mention of either nomination. PBS, however, referenced Wilson’s confirmation once in a short report during PBS NewsHour on May 6.
CNN did not cover Wilson’s nomination, and it only discussed Walker’s nomination during one segment. Fox News spent over 16 minutes covering the nominations across seven segments, while MSNBC dedicated nearly 24 minutes of coverage across 10 segments.
CNN’s sole segment on the topic was during a May 5 interview with Sen. Angus King (I-ME) on New Day With Alisyn Camerota and John Berman. King noted the risk of holding in-person hearings for an “unqualified judge for a lifetime appointment” during the pandemic, adding that when “you bring in 100 senators, you're also bringing in lots and lots -- several thousand staff people, Capitol Police, all the people that are based upon this operation here.” However, neither King nor co-anchor John Berman noted Walker’s far-right views during the segment.
The majority of Fox News’ coverage came from Shannon Bream, the anchor of Fox News @ Night and the network’s chief legal correspondent. She covered Walker’s nomination across three segments and featured guests from conservative groups that work to confirm right-wing judges. Those guests tried to whitewash his far-right views and ignored the public health concerns of holding in-person confirmation hearings during the coronavirus pandemic.
Bream first covered Walker’s nomination in a segment on the May 4 edition of Fox News @ Night. Then, on May 5, she hosted Judicial Crisis Network President Carrie Severino, who glossed over the hearing’s coronavirus risks and claimed that Senate Democrats opposed to Walker’s nomination were engaging in “raw partisan politics.” On May 8, Article III Project President Mike Davis rationalized the risk of exposing dozens of elderly senators to potential COVID-19 infection, saying, “The most important thing that the Senate does is to perform its constitutional duty to vet judicial nominees.” Davis also asserted that there are “politicians around the country who are more interested in power grabs than public safety” but failed to address the public safety risks of in-person hearings during the coronavirus pandemic.
MSNBC’s coverage of Walker's and Wilson’s nominations largely contextualized their far-right views and noted McConnell’s fervent efforts to confirm judges despite a global pandemic. On May 6, host Chris Hayes noted that McConnell “is not letting a global pandemic, or physical distancing, or the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans stop his urgent need to come up with more judges.”
MSNBC host Joy Reid reported on both Walker's and Wilson’s far-right views in two separate segments. During a June 28 segment, Advancement Project Executive Director Judith Browne Dianis noted that the Trump-Pence administration has “been singularly focused on moving conservative, right-wing judges in partnership with Mitch McConnell.” She also pointed out that “these judicial appointments are mostly white males under the age of 50, which means that these lifetime appointments are something real for us. These people will be around sitting on the courts for decades doing damage.”
The impact of Walker's and Wilson’s far-right views will be felt for decades to come
Walker and Wilson are just Trump’s two most recent wins in his push to completely overhaul the federal judiciary, which may become his most enduring accomplishment. The two will be able to enforce their ultra-conservative views on issues such as LGBTQ equality, abortion rights, health care, and workers’ rights for decades to come.
Their nominations faced widespread opposition from civil rights organizations, including the Alliance for Justice, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Lambda Legal, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the National Council of Jewish Women. The two judges have also advocated against the Affordable Care Act in the media and faced opposition from a number of health care organizations, including Planned Parenthood and Little Lobbyists.
Similar to many of Trump’s past nominees, Walker is a young Federalist Society member who has long espoused right-wing views. He has about six months of experience on a district court, though his long-standing relationship with McConnell and reputation as his protege may have played a role in his nomination. (The two have known each other since Walker was in high school.) The chief judge of the D.C. appeals court has called for an investigation into whether McConnell pressured Judge Thomas B. Griffith to retire in order to open a vacancy for Walker to fill.
In addition to his relationship with McConnell, Walker has “lavished praise” on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and clerked for him on the D.C. appeals court. Walker has also called the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act “catastrophic” and “indefensible,” and he has self-identified as a “tax-cutting, Iraq-invading Republican.” The American Bar Association had previously rated him as “not qualified” in July 2019, ahead of his prior confirmation to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky, noting that Walker “has never tried a case as lead or co-counsel, whether civil or criminal” before his nomination.
Wilson formerly served as a Mississippi state court judge and has claimed that “gay marriage is a pander to liberal interest groups and an attempt to cast Republicans as intolerant, uncaring and even bigoted.” He has indicated that he believes all abortions should be illegal and has said that he “support[ed] the complete and immediate reversal of the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions.” In a letter opposing his nomination, The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights President Vanita Gupta stated, “Mr. Wilson is an ideological firebrand whose record shows he is more suited to serve as a Fox News commentator than [a] federal judge.”
As top GOP officials call on senior judges to retire, CNN and broadcast news must report on future nominees
The Trump-Pence administration has confirmed far right-judges at record speed, and CNN and corporate broadcast networks have been caught flat-footed before. As Media Matters previously reported, CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC also largely failed to report on Steven Menashi and Lawrence VanDyke when they were nominated and subsequently confirmed to lifetime judgeships. Similar to Walker and Wilson, Menashi and VanDyke are both far-right lawyers who have been exposed as anti-LGBTQ throughout their legal careers.
There have been rumors of an upcoming Supreme Court vacancy, which are particularly resonant given that top Republican leaders are reportedly calling on older conservative judges to retire ahead of the 2020 presidential election. In the coming months, the Trump-Pence administration -- in partnership with McConnell -- may get other opportunities to confirm unqualified, far-right judges to powerful lifetime appointments. If they do, it is essential that CNN and corporate broadcast networks inform their viewers and aggressively report on the nominees’ confirmation process and their extreme records.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Nexis, SnapStream, and iQ Media databases for cable and broadcast network coverage appearing in original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC, and the nightly news programs on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour) between 5 a.m. and midnight from May 4 through June 25, 2020, for mentions of any of the terms “Wilson,” “Walker,” “Fifth Circuit,” “5th Circuit,” “appeals court,” “Court of Appeals,” “appellate judge,” or “judicial nominee,” as well as the word “judge” occurring with 10 words of “confirm.”
We included segments in which Justin Walker's or Cory Wilson’s nomination or confirmation was the stated topic of discussion or in which there was significant discussion about the topic, which we defined as instances when two or more people discussed the topic with one another. We did not include passing mentions of the topic or previews for upcoming segments in the analysis. Times have been rounded to the nearest minute.