President Donald Trump on Thursday announced nominees to fill five federal court vacancies in Texas, including a former Travis County prosecutor and two lawyers with ties to First Liberty Institute, a Christian legal advocacy group.
Included in a list of 16 court nominations that the White House released Thursday, the five would fill half of the vacancies in Texas that have been open from one to six years and designated as judicial emergencies for the strain the vacancies have placed on the legal system.
All five Texas nominees had been recommended to Trump by the state’s Republican senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and will require approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee, followed by the full U.S. Senate, before taking the bench.
“I’m confident these nominees will serve Texans well on the bench by faithfully applying the law, and I hope the Senate will move quickly to confirm them,” Cornyn said.
Trump’s nominees included two who had been previously nominated by former President Barack Obama, including Walter David Counts III, a U.S. magistrate judge in Midland whose appointment expired without getting a vote in the Senate last year.
Counts, an assistant district attorney in Travis County before becoming a federal prosecutor based in San Antonio, where he rose to deputy chief of the major crimes unit, was tapped to serve as a federal judge based in Midland in place of U.S. District Judge Robert Junell, who went on senior status more than 2½ years ago.
Counts also is a judge advocate in the Texas National Guard, where he is a colonel, and served in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. His law degree is from St. Mary’s University.
Trump also nominated Jeff Mateer, the first assistant attorney general of Texas, to serve in the Eastern District, which has vacancies in Tyler and Plano.
Mateer was formerly general counsel and executive vice president of First Liberty Institute, where he focused on litigation related to the practice of religion. The Christian legal advocacy group has sued over limits on prayer at school events or government meetings, defended businesses that refuse to serve same-sex couples and fought to let Texas law enforcement agencies display “In God we trust” decals on patrol cars, among other cases.
Mateer, whose law degree is from Southern Methodist University, is the top executive in Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office and supervises the state’s litigation matters.
“I knew when I appointed him 18 months ago that a greater calling could come, and I couldn’t be happier for Jeff and his family,” Paxton said. “Judges who rule by the Constitution and the law are desperately needed today, and I am confident Judge Mateer will faithfully fulfill this duty.”
Trump also tapped Matthew Kacsmaryk, First Liberty Institute’s deputy general counsel, to a spot in the Northern District of Texas, which has vacancies in Dallas, Fort Worth, Amarillo and Lubbock.
Kacsmaryk was an assistant U.S. attorney from 2008-13, where he handled criminal appeals and served as co-counsel in trials, was an associate in the Dallas office of Baker Botts and has a law degree from the University of Texas.
Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, criticized Trump’s reliance on First Liberty Institute for his judicial picks.
“Today’s nominations are the president’s latest gift to the anti-LGBT and religious-right activists who have supported him since the campaign,” she said.
Other nominees included:
• Fernando Rodriguez Jr., who oversees efforts to fight sex trafficking of children as the Dominican Republic field office director for International Justice Mission, would serve in the Southern District of Texas, which has vacancies in Corpus Christi and Brownsville.
Rodriguez, whose law degree is from UT, was a briefing attorney in the late 1990s for Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, who is now chief justice.
• Karen Gren Scholer, co-managing partner in the Dallas law firm of Carter Scholer, would serve in Northern District of Texas. A state district judge in Dallas from 2000-08, Scholer’s law degree is from Cornell University. Scholer also had been nominated by Obama to be a federal judge in the Eastern District but did not receive a Senate vote.
Trump has not yet moved to fill three vacancies on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Texas, that have been designated as judicial emergencies by the Judicial Conference of the United States, which makes policy for the federal court system.