WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump nominated five candidates Thursday to fill vacant federal judge posts in Texas, including Jeff Mateer, a top official in the state’s attorney general’s office known for his background in “religious freedom” litigation.
The Texas nominations were part of 16 candidates nominated Thursday for federal judge positions across the country, including Trump’s own general counsel, Gregory G. Katsas of Virginia. Thursday also marked the seventh wave of conservative candidates the president has nominated for lower court vacancies.
Two of the five candidates for Texas, Mateer and Matthew Kacsmaryk, have spent part of their careers at Plano-based First Liberty Institute, a conservative law firm focused on bringing forward religious liberty cases.
Mateer, named as Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s first assistant last May, was nominated in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas to be based in Sherman.
Jeff Mateer, first assistant to attorney general, enters the courtroom where the federal lawsuit on transgender bathroom rules will be held at Eldon B. Mahon U.S. Courthouse in Fort Worth on Aug. 12, 2016. (Nathan Hunsinger/The Dallas Morning News)
Paxton expressed his support for Trump’s announcement in a statement, saying “judges who rule by the Constitution and the law are desperately needed today, and I am confident a Judge Mateer will faithfully fulfill this duty.”
Before his job in Paxton’s office, Mateer was general counsel and executive vice president of First Liberty Institute. He worked on several major cases in Texas for the group, including a case out of Kountze High School in East Texas where school administrators would not allow cheerleaders to display religious-themed banners at football games. Attorneys for the cheerleaders were supported by the Liberty Institute.
In 2016, Mateer promised that he would not back down from his religious liberty stance during his tenure in Paxton’s office, and told the San Antonio Express-News, “It’s vitally important to ensure that the state is prohibited from interfering with the free exercise of religion, and I look forward to defending these liberties in my new role.”
Paxton’s office has never been shy about religious liberty battles, and made headlines with decisions over “In God We Trust” stickers on cop cars and telling clerks they don’t have to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
Kacsmaryk, the nominee for district judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas to be based in Amarillo, is currently deputy general counsel for First Liberty. Kacsmaryk served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Texas from 2008 to 2013.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who tracks judicial nominations, said he was “cautiously optimistic” that all five nominations would pass muster, despite Mateer and Kacsmaryk’s ties to First Liberty.
“During Obama’s time, the Republican senators from Texas were not that cooperative, so vacancies piled up,” Tobias said. “It’s critical to fill those seats.”
Trump also nominated Walter David Counts III in the Western District of Texas based in Midland, Karen Gren Scholer in the Northern District of Texas to be based in Dallas and Fernando Rodriguez Jr. in the Southern District of Texas to be based in Brownsville.
Counts and Scholer were previously nominated by Obama, but the nominations expired when Republicans stalled the vote. Tobias said he expects their nominations to be approved quickly because they’ve already received hearings.
Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz released statements Thursday afternoon in support of the Texas nominations. The two senators recommended all five of candidates to Trump after an “extensive review and interview process” by the bipartisan Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee, a panel of Texas attorneys established by Cornyn and Cruz.
“I’m confident these nominees will serve Texans well on the bench by faithfully applying the law, and I hope the Senate will move quickly to confirm them,” Cornyn said.
Even with five nominations by the president, Tobias noted that it’s still a long road before Texas will see all 13 of its court vacancies filled. The state e has 11 district court vacancies and two on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“The judges are incredibly overworked,” Tobias said. “The system is just really overloaded, so that’s the real problem for litigants and for judges.”
The five nominees announced Thursday must be confirmed by the Judiciary Committee and then by the full Senate.