Sid Salter

SID SALTER

While most people aspire to the assurance that judges are first and foremost fair and unbiased in their rulings, President Donald Trump’s nomination of Southern District U.S. Federal Judge Halil Suleyman “Sul” Ozerden of Gulfport to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has evoked a far different response from some segments of the far right led by Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

Cruz, who fought Trump hammer and tong for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, lost a truly bitter primary battle against him that included the worst sorts of personal attacks. During the campaign, Trump went after Cruz, Cruz’s wife, Heidi, and his father, Rafael – citing a National Enquirer story that linked the elder Cruz to JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

Not to be outdone, Cruz answered with some attacks of his own, calling Trump a “narcissist” and “serial philanderer” and someone for whom “morality doesn’t exist.”

Let’s step back from the Trump v. Cruz battle and focus on Judge Sul Ozerden. Born in Hattiesburg to a family of Turkish immigrants in 1966, he graduated from Georgetown University and spent six years as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot flying missions in Somalia and Iraq. After his military service, he graduated from Stanford Law School in 1998.

Eight years later, while a partner in a Gulf Coast private firm, Ozerden was nominated for the U.S. District Court seat he now holds by President George W. Bush and then unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate. He’s now spent 12 years on the federal bench.

Let’s also focus on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Comprised of the states of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, the court is among the nation’s most conservative. All the U.S. senators in all three states are Republican. The Mississippi vacancy on the bench created by longtime 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Grady Jolly’s 2017 decision to take senior status has languished almost two years.

The process of replacing Jolly was slow rolled by the Trump Administration and Ozerden wasn’t formally nominated to the post by Trump until April 2018. The Senate held hearings earlier this year on the Ozerden nomination. Opposition to Ozerden from Cruz and GOP U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri have further stalled the confirmation process.

For the record, both of Mississippi’s Republican U.S. Senators strongly support the Ozerden nomination. Wicker told his Senate colleagues: “The son of an immigrant, Judge Ozerden was an Eagle Scout, a distinguished combat veteran, a leader in his church and community, and has been a federal district court judge for the last 12 years. Judge Ozerden has my strong support and that of Senator Hyde-Smith.”

Currently on the 5th Circuit, Texas has nine judges, Louisiana has five judges, and Mississippi has two judges and one vacancy.

Trump’s five prior judicial nominations to the 5th Circuit – three from Texas, two from Louisiana – had the strong political blessings of the White House Counsels’ Office and of the Federalist Society. Ozerden’s nomination – based on similar attacks on Ozerden’s record from the Texas-based First Liberty Institute – is being bright line targeted as a case of the Gulf Coast jurist not being “conservative enough.”

But Cruz and Hawley’s opposition seems more rooted in feathering their own political nests with groups who want political “purity” judicial nominees whose decision will be founded more in political postures than in the law.

Cruz railed against “judicial activism” on the campaign trail in Iowa in 2015. But in the case of Ozerden, it seems Cruz doesn’t see Ozerden’s prospects for conservative judicial activism being quite strong enough.

Ozerden’s judicial record reflects that Trump may have been onto something when he hung the moniker “Lyin’ Ted” around the senator’s neck.

SID SALTER is a syndicated Mississippi columnist. Readers can contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

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