Ron Johnson judges

Wisconsin’s Republican senator has approved lifetime positions for several nominees who were vigorously opposed by coalitions of civil rights groups.

In light of the Dobbs decision by the US Supreme Court, Sen. Ron Johnson has flip-flopped and shifted his views on how to restrict women’s reproductive freedom, but he remains consistent in supporting the right-wing members’ decision to repeal Roe v. Wade in June.

“I’m fully supportive of what the Supreme Court did,” Johnson told the host of a right-wing radio show. “I obviously confirmed the justices that handed down that correct decision.”

Johnson knows his power as a US senator is not limited to confirming Supreme Court nominees. The Wisconsin Republican has spent 12 years voting on nominees for federal judgeships, many with lifetime appointments. While he may be happy to talk about the justices, it’s not clear if he shares the same enthusiasm for the positions taken by some of the judges he has voted to confirm over the years—with views that include opposition to same-sex marriage and the freedom to purchase contraceptives, and even hesitancy to agree that the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended segregation in public schools was correctly decided.

Here are some of the judges who Johnson approved, according to information provided to UpNorthNews—and the actions and statements that indicate a record of hostility toward women, minorities, and LGBTQ rights.

Howard Nielson was confirmed on a near-party line 51-47 vote in 2019. All Senate Democrats and one Republican opposed his appointment because of his past work that helped pave the way for the US Justice Department—under George W. Bush—to condone torture. Outside of government, Nielson has also done legal work in private practice aimed at ending same-sex marriage rights in California. He’s been more lenient towards others, though. In 2020, he sentenced a Latter-day Saint bishop to 46 months of incarceration for possession of child pornography, near the bottom end of sentencing guidelines.

Matthew Kacsmaryk was confirmed on a near-party line vote. All Senate Democrats and one Republican opposed his appointment, which was highlighted in one news article with the headline: “Senate Advances Trump Court Pick Opposed By Pretty Much Every LGBTQ Rights Group Ever.” As deputy general counsel for First Liberty Institute, a right-wing Christian advocacy group, Kacsmaryk opposed protections for LGBTQ people in employment, housing and health care, implying their concerns should not be taken as seriously as other forms of discrimination. He also called including protections for LGBTQ people in the Violence Against Women Act “a grave mistake.” Kacsmaryk was sharply critical of Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 US Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. In anticipation of the Obergefell decision, he wrote an essay in the National Catholic Register that opposed premarital sex and was riddled with quotation marks around words like “LGBT,” “full equality,” “gender identity,” and “marriage.”

Wendy Vitter was confirmed on a near-party line vote. All Senate Democrats and one Republican opposed her appointment, in part because she would not offer a direct answer on whether she thought Brown v. Board had been correctly decided. The wife of a former senator and the former general counsel for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Vitter was also criticized for her failure to include on background disclosure forms her past comments on abortion, including the false claim that Planned Parenthood killed more than 150,000 women a year. 

“I will be bound by precedent, including Roe versus Wade,” Vitter testified in her confirmation hearing. “My religious, personal, or political beliefs would have to be set aside.” Similar promises to honor “settled law” were cast aside by the conservative justices who were part of theDobbs majority—but only after they achieved control of the court thanks to Republican senators like Johnson, who prevented former President Barack Obama from filling one vacancy for nearly a year and rushed to fill another vacancy before former President Donald Trump left office.

Allen Winsor was confirmed on a near-party line vote. All Senate Democrats except Joe Manchin of West Virginia opposed his appointment. Winsor opposed the contraceptive coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act, claiming corporations are “persons” with religious rights and should not have to abide by a requirement to cover their female employees.

Brantley Starr was confirmed on a party line vote in 2019. In 2017, he defended a Texas law imposing criminal penalties on doctors who provide abortion care. Starr has also advocated against legalizing same-sex marriage and has testified in support of legislation intended to protect state-funded adoption agencies that discriminate against LGBTQ couples.

Stephen Clark was confirmed in 2019 on a near-party line vote. All Senate Democrats except Manchin opposed Clark’s appointment, as the judge had.compared same-sex marriage to polygamy and compared Roe v. Wade to the Dred Scott decision. He also opposed the Affordable Care Act’s requirement to cover birth control, saying “there is no reason to believe that women are carrying an inequitable burden when it comes to the costs of contraceptives.”

At least two other judges confirmed by Johnson have refused to say if they would support the school segregation outlawed by Brown.

Johnson voted on more than 200 federal judges nominated by Trump. Jim Santelle, a former United States attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin from 2010 to 2015, said on a recent edition of the UpNorthNews radio show that there’s nothing wrong with a variety of viewpoints among judges, but added the judiciary is in serious trouble when lifetime judicial appointments are given to people with scant legal experience and a greater interest in ideology than in upholding rights and freedoms that have been long-protected by the courts.

“We’ve got plenty of wonderful people, frankly, on both sides of the political aisle who are great lawyers, who are wonderful attorneys, state court judges, magistrate judges who can be in those positions,” Santelle said. “People should not be there because of their political credentials. They should be there because of their academic background and their experience as judges, as lawyers, as practitioners who advance the rule of law. And with respect to some of them on the bench now—for life—that is not the case.”