President Donald Trump is expected to stock the ranks of federal judges and top prosecutor posts with hard-line conservatives. But in Oregon the process has barely started, giving rise to speculation that dark-horse picks could have a chance.
In January, Oregon's lone Republican member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, recommended lawyers to take over top posts in the state's federal legal apparatus.
While one of those suggestions, House Republican leader Mike McLane to become Oregon's U.S. Attorney, has gotten plenty of attention, another has not. Walden has recommended a relatively unknown federal prosecutor, Ryan Bounds, to fill an opening on the powerful U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals — a choice that could reverberate for decades.
Bounds, from Hermiston, is a Yale Law School graduate and former White House adviser whose family is close to Walden. His sister is the congressman's chief of staff. Like Trump's pick for Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, Bounds is a member of the Federalist Society, a group that aims to get conservative lawyers into judgeships. He just turned 44.
In a Jan. 25 letter to Trump, Walden praised Bounds' academic achievements, "high-level government experience, and commitment to conservative lega principles." Because of Bounds' relative youth, Walden added, "he is ideally situated to cement your legacy as president by serving on the court for decades in the future."
Click the link to read the Ryan Bounds recommendation
Click the link to read the Mike McLane recommendation
But it's been nearly six months since Walden recommended Bounds and McLane, and Trump, in his first rounds of judicial and U.S. attorney nominations, floated nobody for the Oregon jobs.
Vetting can take months. Critics say the new administration has been slow to get its act together, and some people accuse Democrats of throwing up roadblocks in Washington, D.C.
And yet the delay has nevertheless caused questions to start to swirl in local legal circles: Will Bounds and McLane actually be nominated, or are they not the shoo-ins they were thought to be? Might the White House be looking at other, more experienced candidates, like federal Judge Michael Mosman or incumbent U.S. Attorney Billy Williams, for those jobs?
Walden's office declined to comment. But a spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Portland, said the delay is not on his end, adding that the White House has barely started to engage in the customary consultation with the state's senators over such picks.
"Sen. Merkley plans to use the same process for judicial nominations that has served the state well for years: having a panel of respected attorneys interview candidates, review their records, and make recommendations," the spokeswoman, Sara Hottman, said in an email on Tuesday. "Sen. Merkley has communicated that to the White House and to the Judiciary Committee, and has been clear he cannot commit to signing off on any nominees who don't go through that process.
"Sen. Merkley has a call with the White House counsel today," she added. "The call is the first time in six months the administration has reached out on the subject of U.S. Attorney nominations, so it is not accurate to blame 'Democratic foot-dragging' on the delay in finding replacements."
A spokesman for Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon's ranking Democrat, echoed that message. "Sen. Wyden is working with Sen. Merkley and Congressman Walden on developing a process that provides the fairest and best opportunity to forward good candidates for these posts."
The appeals court sits one rung down from the U.S. Supreme Court and holds many of the same powers, making rulings and setting precedents that guide the interpretation of federal laws in states on the West Coast as well as Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Hawaii, Montana and Alaska. Oregon typically has two seats on the 29-judge circuit.
In such picks, connections often outweigh credentials, politically active lawyers say. But supporters of Bounds say he has both.
"He's got a keen grasp of what the law is and what the law says. ... He's a brilliant guy, but he's not an egghead," said Kristian Roggendorf, a local lawyer and friend of Bounds who heads the Oregon branch of the Federalist Society.
If Trump does decide to go with a more proven judge, the other name that has come up in speculation for the Ninth Circuit appellate post is Michael Mosman, the former U.S. attorney for Oregon and the state's chief federal judge.
Even defense lawyers, typically a liberal bunch, begrudgingly say Mosman is a very good jurist. His fans, however, say he's great.
"He's just a marvelous judge ... nothing short of unbelievable," said former federal prosecutor John Deits. "He is the pefect choice for that job. He's just amazingly smart, amazingly experienced."
Whoever is picked would replace Appellate Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain, who took senior status, essentially semi-retirement, on Jan. 1. He was considered among the most conservative judges on the Ninth Circuit, and Bounds is expected to follow in his footsteps, as a devotee of the "originalist" legal philosophy embraced by late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Mosman, nominated by former President George W. Bush, also is a conservative. He has a reputation for making government lawyers prove their case, and is not considered a purist.
Mosman and Bounds declined to comment.
While the 9th Circuit currently tilts liberal, Trump has four vacancies to fill. Moreover, there currently several bills in Congress that propose splitting the 9th Circuit, a popular idea among Republicans. If that happens, the balance of judges affecting Oregon could change. O'Scannlain, the senior appellate judge from Oregon whose position is now vacant, supports the idea of a split.
"The chances are as good now as they ever have been," he said. He declined to comment on who should replace him.
Meanwhile, the delay in filling federal posts in Oregon has led to speculation among lawyers interviewed by the Portland Tribune that McLane, Walden's pick for U.S. attorney, might not be a sure thing.
McLane, a Powell Butte lawmaker since 2011, is a former clerk to Oregon Supreme Court Justice Mick Gillette. While in law school, he served as a law clerk to the U.S. Attorney's office, helping with drug cases there, and went into business law. He's since handled nine federal cases in Oregon, according to the federal court records website PACER. He's also a lieutenant colonel and JAG lawyer in the Oregon Air National Guard.
Walden, in his recommendation of McLane, called him a solid leader who would be a "no-nonsense" U.S. Attorney.
McLane's candidacy for the job was first reported by the Tribune in March. In May, McLane told The Oregonian he expected the White House to make a decision by the end of June.
The current top federal prosecutor, Williams, is an unaffiliated voter, but has conservative tough-on-crime credentials. In March, he was one of only a few U.S. Attorneys not asked to resign by Trump. He is thought to have connections high up in the U.S. Department of Justice.
Williams and McLane declined to comment.
Still another federal vacancy Trump will fill is to replace U.S. District Judge Anna Brown. Multnomah Circuit Judge Karin Immergut, a former U.S. attorney for Oregon, is considered a top candidate. And local public defender Daniel Crowe, the former Republican candidate for state attorney general, has told people he is under consideration for the job.
Immergut declined to comment. Asked whether he is being considered for a judgeship, Crowe said, "Golly, I hope so," but declined to discuss specifics.