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FTC to Senate: Vet Your Nominee (Justin Walker Edition)

Lack of investigation into Justin Walker confounding given ethics questions, no current vacancy

New information coming in to Fix the Court about D.C. Circuit nominee Justin Walker underscores the utter lack of Senate vetting so far and has prompted the organization to call for a delay in his confirmation vote until a broader inquiry takes place.

An FTC investigation, begun last week based on a bizarre entry in Walker’s financial disclosure report, has expanded to cover larger questions about his discretion and qualifications.

Walker’s 2019 (p. 55) and 2020 (p. 5) disclosures and Kentucky public records indicate that the 38-year-old U.S. district judge, also a professor at the University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law, loaned $89,500 to two married former students in 2018. According to an April 2020 filing, Walker indicated that he was still owed $79,700 from “relatives and friends” (p. 71), though a DOJ spokesman told FTC last week that the loan had been fully reimbursed after a 2019 refinancing.

Even with the confusion over the terms of the debt, what’s more unsettling is how one of the loan recipients, Jake Grey, was Walker’s unpaid teaching assistant in fall 2019, taking over many of his teaching duties in the run-up to his first confirmation, with the loan possibly serving as alternative compensation. (Walker still collected his full taxpayer-funded university salary of $97,139.28 that year.) The other recipient, Leah Spears, is Walker’s current W.D. Ky. law clerk.

Last week FTC asked the judiciary’s top ethics body to comment on the propriety of a judge loaning a large sum to an employee, though we’ve yet to receive a response.

New today is word that Walker, according to multiple sources who spoke with FTC on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely without fear of reprisal, was seen as having had an unwelcome classroom for minority students, with the perception on campus being that he’d favor certain types of students over others. Walker “showed underlying biases with people of color that raise concerns about his fitness for the bench,” one campus source said.

In one reported instance, according to several campus sources, white students in his spring 2019 legal writing class taunted a group of minority students, immigrants among them, with a chant of “build the wall.” Walker did not intervene to stop the instigators but instead smiled and joked that it “could be seen as a microaggression” without explaining why it was inappropriate and could be seen as offensive.

This was alleged not as a one-off occurrence in Walker’s classroom, and similarly insensitive incidents occurred elsewhere on campus, to the point where minority students pushed for, and procured, a school-wide meeting later that spring on how the community could be more welcoming to students of color.

“Over the past week we’ve uncovered information every day that calls into question the Senate’s vetting – not to mention Justin Walker’s ability to render disinterested opinions,” FTC executive director Gabe Roth said. “That’s why I’m calling on the Senate to take the next three months before Judge Griffith retires to do the research and not simply rubber-stamp a nominee since he has friends in high places.”

Thomas Griffith, the judge whose D.C. Circuit seat Walker would be taking, is not scheduled to leave his job until September.

On campus, questions remain about the special dispensation Walker received during the spring 2019 semester to moonlight at a local law firm, Dinsmore & Shohl, for the express purpose of gaining enough experience to satisfy the ABA’s judicial nominee qualifications, though his nomination occurred a mere five-and-a-half months after he joined the firm as “partner of counsel.” One source told us that group assignments were given to his legal writing students at the time in order to reduce his teaching workload.

Though 16 of Walker’s colleagues at Brandeis Law, including the dean, signed a letter of support for his nomination to the U.S. District Court, there has been no joint letter of support for his nomination to the D.C. Circuit, just individual letters of support from three law professors.

FTC has also learned more about the “Ordered Liberty Fellowship,” pictured here, which Walker founded last year with Brandeis Law Prof. Luke Milligan as a way to brandish his resume, according to our sources. Milligan called FTC’s Google Voice line Monday night and Tuesday morning without identifying himself, though from searchable numbers, to defend the fellowship.

This past March, Brandeis Law grad and Ky. Rep. Jason Nemes placed a $500,000 line item in the state’s budget for the program, which was ultimately cut. Nemes told FTC Monday that he had heard of the fellowship during a campus visit and “wanted to give back.” “I never talked with Justin about it, and this was my decision to do it,” he added.

Walker, a Louisville native, donated a total of $700 to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s last Senate campaign in 2013 and 2014 and $250 to Sen. Rand Paul in 2016.

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