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Bill Straub: Vying to replace worst deal in history is nomination of Chad Meredith to federal judgeship

Since it costs a lot to win and even more to lose
You and me bound to spend some time wonderin’ what to choose
Goes to show, you don’t ever know
Watch each card you play and play it slow
Wait until that deal come ’round
Don’t you let that deal go down, no, no
• The Grateful Dead

Fifty-one years ago, the New York Mets, the greatest, most beloved franchise in major league baseball history, acquired the services of Jim Fregosi from the Los Angeles Angels to play third base, a position that had bedeviled the club since its inception in 1962.

To complete the deal, the Mets sent to the Angels a young right-hander who threw BBs but often had no idea where the ball, once pitched, might end up, although it was generally somewhere out of the strike zone. His name? Nolan Ryan.

It’s fair to say, looking back over the years, the trade didn’t work to the Mets’ advantage. Fregosi hit .232 for the club in 1972 and then knocked around for several sub-par seasons with a variety of other teams, never appearing in more than 90 games during that stretch, before retiring in 1978.

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

Ryan, on the other hand, pitched for 21 years after exiting Shea Stadium, compiling 295 wins over that period, setting the all-time strike-out record, 5,714 to be exact, and earning a plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Suffice to say the deal is often cited as the worst ever made in recorded history, which goes back to, oh, around 3400 BC or thereabouts. But suddenly, without warning, it appears that long-held distinction may be passing on to another deal still in the works. Aficionados of such catastrophes are waiting with bated breath to determine how things turn out.

The White House has informed Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, and Gov. Andy Beshear, that President Biden intends to nominate a gentleman named Chad Meredith to a federal judgeship in the Eastern District of Kentucky, replacing U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell, who has elected to assume senior status.

Such moves are an almost daily occurrence and usually wouldn’t draw an extraordinary amount of attention. But in this instance Biden, a Democrat, would be handing over a valuable, lifetime position to an extremely conservative Republican, a member of the Federalist Society, a trusted aide to failed former Gov. Matt Bevin who was so despised that even his fellow Republicans were
repulsed by the sight of him.

And, putting a cherry on top of that sundae, Meredith is virulently anti-abortion, a shaky position for judicial nominees given the pushback accorded the recent Supreme Court decision retracting the 1972 decision in Roe v. Wade that established a constitutional right to abortion.

So, yes, the whole thing does seem rather curious, especially given that Biden has vowed to oppose what is being referred to as the Dobbs decision with all the powers of his office. Even if abortion wasn’t a factor, a Democrat handing over a coveted federal judgeship to a Republican, a whacky right-winger at that, just doesn’t add up.

The deal is still in the works. It could fall apart, and Democrats better pray it does. The White House, in a message to the governor’s office on June 23, said the nomination would be made the next day. But the next day has yet to arrive. Just before the die was cast, the high court entered its abortion decision, leading the administration to pull on the reins, at least for the time being.

If it should ever proceed, it would be, in Beshear’s words, “indefensible.”

Thanks to The Courier Journal in Louisville, the fog shrouding some of the particulars has been lifted. Apparently, Biden struck some sort of deal, the details of which remain blurred, with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Louisville, who has dedicated himself to destroying centuries of juris prudence by seeing to it that the federal judiciary is sated with the sort of right-wing lawgivers that would make Torquemada blanch.

It’s obvious what benefit McConnell derives from all this – he collects federal judgeships like Jay Leno collects cars. He’s constantly on the lookout to put another in his pocket. What remains unknown is what Biden gets out of all this.

Rumors are circulating, without confirmation, obviously, that in return for the nomination, McConnell has agreed to ease up on GOP opposition to other Biden nominations, judicial and, perhaps, otherwise. That doesn’t seem to hold water.

Even if McConnell steps aside, a dubious proposition given Mitch’s inclinations, some other Republican, pain in the neck like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, or the Commonwealth’s own, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, will willingly step up to fill any obstructionist void.

Regardless, the rationale makes no sense. Current rules essentially prohibit a filibuster for judicial nominees, meaning confirmation requires only 50 votes, which can be achieved with the entirety of the Senate Democratic caucus and Vice President Kamala Harris providing a tiebreaker when needed. As of July 1, the Senate had confirmed 69 Biden nominees — Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, 16 judges for the  courts of appeals and 52 district court judges. Biden, in
fact, had more of his judicial nominees confirmed during his first year in office than any president since Ronald Reagan in 1981.

If the idea is to clear the way for non-judicial nominees, who require 60 votes, Republicans can draw things to a halt with or without McConnell, whose powers don’t include permitting him to vote in the stead of his fellow GOP lawmakers.

So that’s a dead end.

Mark Joseph Stern, reporting for Slate, an ezine, wrote that a lawyer “with connections to the Kentucky governor’s office,” told him that with the Meredith nomination, “McConnell will allow Biden to nominate and confirm two U.S. Attorneys to Kentucky.”

Frankly, if that’s the case, the deal is too stupid to contemplate. Biden would be trading a lifetime appointment to a powerful judgeship for a pair of prosecutor positions with four-year term limits. U.S. attorney is undoubtedly a good gig, but it’s nowhere close to the job that let’s you make the ultimate decisions. McConnell has long been touting Jefferson Commonwealth Attorney Tom Wine for the prosecutor’s job in the Western District, though without success. On this deal, in
Kentucky, at least, Mitch would be trading a box of rocks for the holy grail.

It’s difficult, impossible really, to decipher Biden’s thinking at this juncture, if thinking is what you would call it. With the ink on the high court’s anti-abortion Dobbs decision barely dry, Biden is contemplating the appointment of a lawyer who, as chief deputy counsel for Bevin, defended a Kentucky abortion law that required doctors to perform ultrasounds and describe the image to patients before performing abortions. Meredith lost at the trial court level but the law was later
upheld by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Meredith further represented Bevin in a lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood after the state refused to grant a clinic operated by the organization a permit to perform abortions. That suit continued after Bevin left office, with Planned Parenthood receiving the license when the Beshear administration decided not to pursue the case.

But wait, as they say in the TV ads, there’s more.

In 2019, The Courier Journal, primarily behind the work of reporter Joe Sonka, won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles about questionable clemencies granted by Bevin during the closing days of his single term as governor. The CJ ultimately reported that documents showed Meredith “was one of Bevin’s general counsel staff to give recommendations to the governor on whether certain applicants
deserve clemency.”

Sir Isaac Newton couldn’t figure this conundrum. It gets even worse when you consider the uncomfortable situation it places Senate Democrats in. They will first be confronted with whether to provide Meredith with a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Then, should it reach the floor, certainly a majority, if not all the Democratic lawmakers aligned with the president’s party will vote against it, something Republicans can use world without end.

And McConnell can smirk no matter how it turns out.

The only explanation that makes any sense, and it’s not a good one, is Biden playing the magnanimous card, establishing he is willing to go the extra yard to work without rancor with Republicans to address the issues facing the nation. It would be the political equivalent of extending a hand to an old foe, Uncle Joe showing Mitch he really isn’t such a bad guy, let’s work together (cue the sunbeam).

If so, he’s obviously misreading the room. The Republican Party is not the same as the one he dealt with during his time as a senator from Delaware. The GOP, under McConnell, has no real desire to accommodate, it just wants power. It’s not in the business of getting things done, that’s made obvious by the fact that in 2020, and again this year, with elections approaching, the party refused to put forward a platform of what it hopes to accomplish should it take control. Its entire philosophy is attack and exploit, using those tactics to gain power for power’s sake.

That’s the plan and, if Biden proceeds with the nomination, at least the Mets, and the late Jim Fregosi, will finally rest in peace.

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