David Porter – Nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

While the Trump Administration has displayed a tendency to nominate conservative judges to courts in blue and purple states, the selection of David Porter marks one of the most aggressive moves by the Trump Administration on this front. Porter’s nomination, which comes over the repeated objections of Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, sends a clear signal that the White House will not accommodate senatorial objections to their preferred candidates on the circuit court level.

Background

David Porter was born in Kittanning, Pennsylvania on March 8, 1966. He graduated from Grove City College in Northwest Pennsylvania in 1988 and graduated from George Mason Law School in 1992. Upon earning his J.D., Porter went to clerk for Judge D. Brooks Smith on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania for two years. Following his clerkship, Porter joined the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney and has stayed at the firm ever since.[1]

In 2014, Porter’s name was floated by Sen. Pat Toomey to fill a vacancy on the U.S. District Court on the Western District of Pennsylvania.[2]  While Toomey had struck a deal with Sen. Bob Casey to nominate one judge for every three that Casey put forward, Porter’s nomination was ultimately scrapped due to progressive backlash (legal groups were able to raise 40,000 signatures against Porter) and Casey’s opposition.[3]

History of the Seat

Porter is nominated to take the seat of Judge D. Michael Fisher, another GOP stalwart from Western Pennsylvania who in 2002 served as the GOP nominee for governor, who moved to senior status on February 1, 2017.[4]  Porter had been in contact with the White House and was selected as a prospective nominee early in 2017.[5]  However, Casey informed the White House of his opposition to the nomination soon after and indicated that he had “serious concerns” with Porter.[6]  As Casey’s opposition was clear, the White House sat on the nomination for a year, only nominating Porter after Chairman Chuck Grassley substantially cut back the blue slip policy for Circuit Court nominees, indicating that he would only block action on nominees where home state senators had not been adequately consulted.[7]

Legal Career

Porter’s legal career at Buchanan Ingersoll consists mostly of defense side commercial litigation work and First Amendment work for media and broadcasters.[8]  However, he notably represented former Sen. Rick Santorum in sorting out a residency challenge during his 2006 re-election campaign (which coincidentally was won by Casey).[9]

Political Activity and Affiliations

Porter has been a frequent GOP political donor since 2000. Over the last two decades, He has made 29 donations to GOP candidates and/or the Republican National Committee. He has no recorded donations to a Democrat. His donations to the GOP and GOP candidates totaled $13,550.

Porter has been a particular supporter of Santorum; making eight donations worth $4150 to Santorum’s campaigns over the years. From 2010 to 2016, he also has made four donations of $500 each to Pat Toomey.[10]

Porter also leads the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal advocacy group,[11] and is a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association. He served as a counsel on the Bush-Cheney 2004 reelection campaign.

Writings and Advocacy

While Porter has not been as prolific a writer as other Trump nominees, he has frequently advocated for conservative legal positions.  In 2009, Porter co-founded the Pennsylvania Judicial Network, which opposed the nomination of then-Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, branding her nomination a sign of “judicial elitism.”[12]

Additionally, Porter was a strong opponent of the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act as challenged in NFIB v. Sebelius. In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he wrote a piece titled “Is the health care law constitutional? No, strike it down.”  In the piece, Porter emphasizes originalist arguments, writing that “[t]he framers and those who ratified the Constitution withheld from Congress a plenary police power to enact any law that it deems desirable.”[13] He adds that original understandings of the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, and the Taxing Clause made clear “the mandate is an unprecedented assertion of federal control that violates the framers’ constitutional design.”[14]

In another piece on the Commerce Clause, Porter stressed that a ruling for the ACA would “break the Framers’ structural design that for 225 years has preserved individual liberty and served as a check on unlimited federal power.”[15]

Porter likewise found fault with the externality and tax arguments in favor of the ACA. He called the notion that we are all part of the healthcare marketplace a “metaphysical abstraction,”[16] and claimed that such a reading could “require people to buy a car.”[17] He said of the tax argument “that the Supreme Court is not likely to adopt it, either. Nor should it.”[18]  Ultimately, the Supreme Court upheld the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act as a tax.

Overall Assessment

Looking at his overall record, there is little doubt that Porter will be a conservative judge on the Third Circuit.  His writings also suggest a strong leaning towards an originalist judicial philosophy.  This philosophy, combined with his advocacy against the Affordable Care Act and Justice Sotomayor’s nomination, has already drawn the strong opposition of liberal groups and, likely, will draw the opposition of senators as well.

However, one cannot talk about Porter without addressing the procedural problems with his nomination.  During the 114th Congress, the Obama Administration nominated Rebecca Ross Haywood, a well-respected appellate prosecutor, to the Third Circuit.  Haywood was blocked by Toomey, and Grassley respected his use of a blue slip and declined to give Haywood a hearing.  Grassley’ has now refused to extend the same courtesy to Casey.

While three appellate nominees have been given hearings in this Congress without home-state senatorial support, there is something different about Porter.  Namely, when the White House nominated Porter, Casey’s opposition was clearly (and publicly) laid out.  While the White House is under no obligation to honor a senator’s preferences on appellate nominees, one would expect the Judiciary Chairman to uphold the standards he himself laid out.  Grassley previously indicated that he would move forward on circuit court judges without blue slips only where the recalcitrant home state senators had been adequately consulted.  It is hard to demonstrate meaningful consultation in a case like this, where the home state senator has repeatedly and consistently expressed his opposition to a prospective nominee, and the nominee was put forward anyway.

Overall, it is unclear whether Casey’s objections will carry any weight among his Republican colleagues.  Assuming they don’t, Porter remains a favorite for confirmation, adding an assertive conservative voice to the relatively collegial Third Circuit.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong., David James Porter Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees, at 1-2.

[2] Jennifer Bendery, Pennsylvania Progressives Race to Stave Off Potential Republican Obama Nominee, HuffPost, March 27, 2014, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/27/obama-judicial-nominee-david-porter_n_5042326.html.  

[3] Jennifer Bendery, Pennsylvania Progressives Torpedo Nomination of Potential GOP Obama Pick, HuffPost, June 2, 2014, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/02/david-porter-toomey-obama-nominee_n_5433446.html.  

[5] See Porter, supra n. 1 at 28-29.

[6] Jennifer Bendery, Democrats Can’t Stop Trump’s Agenda. But They Can Block His Judicial Nominees., HuffPost, May 10, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-judicial-nominees-democrats-blue-slips_us_59137061e4b0bc71ddae8749?section=us_politics.  

[7] See Harsh Voruganti, “Bending Blue Slips: Grassley’s Strategic Error,” Vetting Room (Nov. 24, 2017) at  https://vettingroom.org/tag/blue-slips/.

[8] Supra Porter, note 1 at 15.

[9] Andrew Conte, “Santorum’s lawyer rebuffs challenge to residency,” Pittsburgh Tribune Review (May 26, 2006).

[11] Supra, note 1, at 4.

[12] See Letter from Vanita Gupta, President & CEO, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to U.S. Senate (June 4, 2018) (available at https://civilrights.org/oppose-confirmation-david-porter-u-s-court-appeals-third-circuit/#_ftn14).

[13] Porter, “Is the health care law constitutional? No, strike it down.”  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Mar 25. 2012) at http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/Op-Ed/2012/03/25/Is-the-health-care-law-constitutional-No-strike-it-down/stories/201203250223.

[14] Id.

[15] Porter, “A Whirlwind Tour of the Supreme Court’s Commerce Clause Jurisprudence,” Center for vision and values (Apr. 2, 2012) at http://www.visionandvalues.org/2012/04/a-whirlwind-tour-of-the-supreme-courts-commerce-clause-jurisprudence/.

[16] Id.

[17] Supra, note 13.

[18] Supra, note 13.