The US Senate Judiciary Committee on May 18 approved Judge Amul Thapar, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, on a vote of 11 to 8. Thapar’s nomination now moves to the Senate floor. The Indian American jurist – who is currently the district court judge for the Eastern District of Kentucky and the first Article III judge of South Asian descent – is expected to be confirmed, since Republicans have a 52-48 majority in the Senate. A simple majority – not 60 votes – is required for confirmation.
The American Bar Association – which does not recommend judges but does rate them – gave Thapar its highest ranking of “well qualified” on April 24. The judge has also received approbation from the South Asian Bar Association of North America, and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. However, civil rights groups have criticized him for stance on human rights.
A day before the vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, 24 organizations stated their concern about the nominee, particularly his 2016 ruling that struck down a prohibition on judges making contributions to political organizations or candidates.
In that ruling, Thapar equated political donations with freedom of speech. “There is simply no difference between ‘saying’ that one supports an organization by using words and ‘saying’ that one supports an organization by donating money,” he ruled in the case of Winter vs. Volnitzek.
“Put more plainly, if a candidate can speak the words ‘I support the Democratic Party,’ then he must likewise be allowed to put his money where his mouth is,” wrote Thapar.
As such, political contributions were protected by the First Amendment, ruled Thapar. His opinion was later reversed by a three-judge circuit panel.
The organizations raised their concerns about “Thapar embracing the ‘money is speech’ paradigm,” noting that the Supreme Court itself does not treat financial contributions as being equal to actual speech.
“If Judge Thapar had his way, wealthy donors and special interests could be able to give unlimited sums of money directly to candidates for office. Thapar would make it even harder than it is now for everyday people to be heard and affect who runs for office, who wins elections, and what issues get attention; and easier for powerful politicians to make secret wink and nod deals with their richest contributors,” wrote the concerned organizations.
The People For the American Way, one of the signatories to the letter, also delivered 25,000 petition signatures to the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 17, asking senators to reject Thapar’s nomination.
“Survey after survey shows that Americans believe that there should be less money in politics. Judge Thapar is set to take us further in the wrong direction,” wrote PFAW.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights – which will be led by Indian American civil rights activist Vanita Gupta, beginning in June – had earlier expressed “serious concerns” about the jurist’s record, noting his controversial rulings on several cases, including a case in which he allowed a diabetic inmate to continue to be denied insulin; and sentencing three pacifists – including an 82-year-old nun – to lengthy prison terms after they broke into a nuclear power plant in Oakridge, Tennessee, and spray-painted peace slogans.