Judge trouble for a familiar Virginia name
Thomas Cullen is a young man in a hurry. But maybe he’s tapping the brakes.
Cullen is chief federal prosecutor for the western half of Virginia. He has been in that office for 17 months, since March 2018.
Donald Trump, racing to tilt the judiciary to the right ahead of an uncertain re-election campaign, might have another job in mind for Cullen: a U.S. District Court judgeship, open nearly two years.
However, the state’s Democratic
U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, have their own ideas about who the next federal trial judge in Virginia should be and how that person is selected.
Warner and Kaine, who favored Cullen for prosecutor, have a procedural weapon with which to work their will.
It is a nuclear option, of sorts.
It is one of which Cullen presumably is aware and would likely want to avoid — lest it tarnish a career that, by most measures, is impressive.
Maybe that explains Cullen’s near-silence.
Cullen, born to a centerright but politically dexterous family whose lattice of ties includes a direct line to the Trump administration, told The Roanoke Times he’s concentrating on being the U.S.
Attorney for the Western District of Virginia — “the highlight of my career.”
This would not be the first time the White House has been crosswise with a Virginia senator over a judicial nomination. It has happened at least twice over the past 39 years.
In both instances, a Virginia senator prevailed.
In the 1980s, Harry F. Byrd Jr., an independent, and John W. Warner, a Republican, clashed with Democratic and Republican presidents, respectively, over nominees for the district court and the Richmondbased 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Byrd derailed for the U.S. District Court Jim Sheffield, whom Jimmy Carter favored over candidates recommended by a Byrd-appointed commission. Sheffield, a Richmond Circuit Court judge, would have been the first African American in the Eastern District, which spans from Alexandria to Richmond to Norfolk.
Warner resisted Ronald Reagan over picks for the 4th Circuit until the president consented to nominate a Virginian, Jay Wilkinson, a former Justice Department lawyer and conservative editorialist.
Neither tussle was pretty, playing out in the newspapers and on television.
That could occur again, moving faster — perhaps becoming more vicious — because of the accelerants of cable news and social media, preferred platforms of a president who breaks the rules.
And who is breaking the rules again by floating Cullen’s name.
Presidents typically select judicial nominees from lists of candidates provided by senators from states where there are vacancies. The practice can demand cooperation and comity between presidents and senators who ordinarily do not get along.
That is usually the case with Trump, Warner and Kaine.
Virginia is the only Southern state Trump failed to carry in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, though the rural west — Cullen’s territory, where he has focused on the opioid epidemic, illegal immigration and violent white supremacists — is Trump country.
As the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Warner — running for a third term next year — is a frequent tormentor of Trump. This has occasionally landed Warner in Trump’s Twitter cross hairs. Ditto Kaine.
As the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Kaine would mock Trump when he wasn’t belittling his running mate, Mike Pence, who — as the Russian meddling investigation began boiling — hired as his lawyer Cullen’s renowned fixerfather, Richard.
Such complications notwithstanding, Warner, Kaine and the administration have successfully done business on judicial nominations, most recently that of Rossie Alston.
A conservative and former state appeals court judge, Alston is now on the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District.
The judgeship for which Cullen is mentioned has been vacant since December 2017, when Glen Conrad, a nominee of George W. Bush, announced he was taking semi-retirement.
Warner and Kaine sought candidates, urged their thorough screening by lawyers organizations and others. From that very typical process emerged two recommendations, Robert Ballou, a federal magistrate judge in Roanoke, and Judge John Kilgore of the Scott County Circuit Court.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a nomination: Chatter in political and legal circles indicated Cullen would be considered by Trump over Ballou and Kilgore.
That annoyed Warner and Kaine, whose — pun unintended — judicious public response hinted at trouble for Cullen, who was not vetted. The senators said they “were disappointed that the White House is not moving forward” on Ballou or Kilgore.
It’s what the Democrats didn’t say that’s important.
Would they block Cullen indefinitely, requesting a hold, also known as a “blue slip” for the color paper on which it is printed?
Not even the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, would object. He has said he will recognize such nomination-killing delays.
Strange bedfellows, indeed.
U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen announced a 30-count indictment in the murder case of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2018.