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Trump stacking courts with anti-LGBTQ judges, advocates say

by John Paul Brammer /

From a proposed ban on transgender people serving openly in the military to an amicus brief in support of a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, the Trump administration has often found itself at odds with advocates of LGBTQ rights this year.

But there is one area in particular that has advocates worried, one they say will affect the country, and LGBTQ civil rights, long after President Donald Trump has left office: the record speed with which he is reshaping the federal courts.

When Trump assumed the presidency in January, he inherited more than 120 federal judicial vacancies. Since then, he has made 59 nominations to fill those seats, and the Senate has confirmed 18 of them. Advocates of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights, however, are sounding the alarm over the past records of many of the nominees.

Lambda Legal, a national LGBTQ civil rights group, has been monitoring Trump’s judicial nominees and says roughly one in three have "anti-LGBT records." The result, in the words of Sharon McGowan, the organization's director of strategy, is a “judicial crisis” for the community.

“This is an area where they have the ability to make a huge impact,” McGowan told NBC News. “It’s an area where they hold all the cards.”

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Of Trump’s nominations, Lambda Legal lists 16 as having staunchly anti-LGBTQ records, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch; John K. Bush, confirmed as an appeals judge, and Kyle Duncan, whose nomination is pending; and Jeff Mateer, whose nomination was withdrawn.

The speed at which the Senate is confirming judges is also causing concern among LGBTQ advocates. Trump has gotten more circuit judges confirmed than all three of his predecessors combined during their first year in office.

"Since almost all federal judges serve lifetime appointments, Trump’s success in rapidly appointing judges will impact millions of Americans long after he has left office," a Lambda Legal report published this week stated.

In a conference call on Wednesday, Lambda Legal staff attorney Sasha Buchert noted that while the nomination of Mateer, who once referred to transgender children as being part of “Satan’s plan," had been pulled, others, like Duncan, remain a concern to the organization.

“Mr. Duncan has been working his entire career to undermine LGBTQ rights,” Buchert said, referring to Duncan’s defense of the North Carolina lawmakers who passed House Bill 2 (HB 2), commonly called an “anti-transgender bathroom bill.”

Duncan declined NBC News’ request for comment, and the Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.

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As for Gorsuch, concerns have been raised by LGBTQ advocates over several of his court decisions prior to his time on the U.S. Supreme Court, including one involving transgender rights and another involving religious exemptions.

McGowan noted that the impact of Trump’s overhaul of the federal courts will be particularly devastating for LGBTQ people in the South, who often depend on the court as a firewall against discrimination.

“If they’re populating the bench with people who are still fighting the wars of decades past, we will find the federal courts increasingly hostile,” McGowan said. “There are parts of the country where the courts have slammed the doors in the face of the LGBTQ community who need protection.”

As the Supreme Court mulls the case of the Colorado baker — Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — which many LGBTQ advocates say will have far-reaching implications for LGBTQ civil rights, the impact of court appointments is especially acute.

“This burden will be hitting the people who need the protection of the courts the most,” McGowan said. “As unpopular as this president is, he has the opportunity to install over 100 federal judges who will serve the rest of their lives.”

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