Andrew Seidel

A rookie, theocratic Kentucky judge is unqualified for a federal appeals court appointment. 

After being chosen for a federal judgeship just last fall, Justin Walker (a favorite of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) has now been nominated by President Trump to fill a powerful position on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. Walker, 37, received his initial appointment despite the lack of “any significant trial experience,” to quote the nonpartisan American Bar Association. The U.S. Senate should reject his appeals nomination.

A recent ruling of Walker reveals his unfitness. A mere three weeks after his official investiture, Walker granted an emergency restraining order allowing large Christian congregations in the Louisville area to gather for Easter church services, despite the demonstrated risks of such assemblies spreading COVID-19. Walker's 20-page opinion and order began with this incendiary statement: “On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter.” 

Walker’s most flagrant error is conflating deliberate religious persecution with a rational government program to save people’s lives and stop the spread of a pandemic. There is really no valid argument that stay-at-home orders threaten religious liberty. Churches and worshippers do not have a right to risk the lives of every other citizen or place additional strain on our overtaxed health care providers. Yet Walker treats a content-neutral, stay-at-home order like the Inquisition. 

Walker issued his opinion without even waiting to hear from the city. As Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer explained, “I regret that the judge did not allow us to present evidence that would have demonstrated there has been no legal enforcement mechanism communicated. We attempted twice to contact the court.” 

In other words, Walker had no jurisdiction over the mayor and city because the church sued the wrong government. This is what judicial activism looks like. 

Walker’s rush to judgment was all the more alarming because it relied only on the word of one church, especially the pastor’s affidavit, to determine the facts of the case. That affidavit was “misleading and inaccurate,” according to the city’s filing with the court. Unlike Walker’s decision, the city relied on facts: receipts and photograph after photograph of the church violating social distancing orders at drive-in services. More than 20 photos showed worshippers hanging out of car windows within 6 feet of one another, passing a collection basket around, and standing side-by-side while singing — evidence that contradicted the preacher’s sworn affidavit and undermined the absurd opinion. 

Walker sees the world through a Christian Nationalist lens. “It was not long ago, for example, that the government told the Supreme Court it can prohibit a church from choosing its own minister; force religious business owners to buy pharmaceuticals they consider abortion-inducing; and conscript nuns to provide birth control,” he writes, mischaracterizing three Supreme Court cases in inflammatory language.

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence,” John Adams famously explained to a jury in 1770. Sadly, Walker is not a judge seeking truth or to uphold the law, but an ideologue bent on using the courts as a tool to serve an ultraconservative agenda. 

Walker issued his Easter ruling not to uphold the law or cure an injustice but to advance himself to yet another sinecure. The Senate should see through his game and reject him for the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Andrew L. Seidel, an attorney and author who writes regularly on the intersection of religion and the law, is the director of strategic response at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He can be emailed at aseidel@ffrf.org

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