Critics say the judicial appointments could turn federal courts into “the place where civil rights go to die.”
Jeff Mateer and Matthew Kacsmaryk have worked to erode the firewall between church and state as lawyers for the First Liberty Institute, a Christian legal advocacy group that protects pastors who mobilize their flock to overturn local non-discrimination ordinances, county clerks who refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses and anti-abortion centers that trick women into thinking they’re walking into actual medical clinics.
Trump’s nomination of the two religious-right legal activists to vacant federal judge seats in Texas has rattled LGBT rights groups, who call the appointments a gift to anti-LGBT activists.
“First Liberty Institute has used anti-LGBTQ policies to blatantly vilify our families and neighbors for two decades,” Equality Texas said in a Friday statement. “By nominating associates of this hate group, the president is using his office in an attempt to ensure policies will be created and spearheaded to advance anti-LGBTQ discrimination in employment, housing and places of business all under the guise of protecting religious liberties.”
Kathy Miller of Texas Freedom Network, which advocates for church-state separation, called the nominations “a clear signal that President Trump intends to make our federal courts the place where civil rights go to die.” Their nominations must still be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Mateer and Kacsmaryk aren’t typical judicial nominees. In his eight years as president, Barack Obama appointed 12 lawyers to vacant federal benches in Texas, eight of whom had served as judges. The other four Obama appointees had lengthy careers as government lawyers in the federal courts, either as law clerks for federal appellate court judges or long stints with the U.S. Department of Justice. One served as White House legal counsel to Bill Clinton.
By contrast, Mateer, who Trump nominated to fill a vacant seat in the Eastern District of Texas, has no judicial experience and most of his work has been in private practice. Mateer made headlines last year when Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton made him the state’s first assistant attorney general. Critics such as Miller bristled that Mateer had publicly eschewed the notion of church-state separation. As he told students during a conference at the University of St. Thomas in 2013:
“I’ll hold up my hundred-dollar bill and say, ‘for the first student who can cite me the provision in the Constitution that guarantees the separation of church and state verbatim, I’ll give this hundred dollar bill. … It’s not there. … The protections of the First Amendment protect us from government, not to cause government to persecute us because of our religious beliefs.”
Before joining Paxton’s office, Mateer was First Liberty’s general counsel and executive vice president, representing people like Tom Brown, an El Paso bishop and founder of what the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled an anti-gay hate group. A month after Paxton hired Mateer, the AG’s office filed a court brief supporting Brown in a lawsuit stemming from his attempts to overturn the city’s non-discrimination ordinance and recall local politicians who pushed for it.
In a statement Thursday, Paxton praised Mateer’s nomination, calling him a “principled leader” and “a man of character.”
Kacsmaryk, one of five lawyers Trump nominated to vacant federal benches in Texas this week, is currently deputy general counsel for First Liberty, according to the group’s website, and oversees its “policy advisory team.” Trump wants to appoint him to the Northern District of Texas,where, prior to joining First Liberty in 2013, he served as an assistant U.S. attorney mostly handling criminal appeals for five years.
First Liberty, formerly known as the Liberty Institute, is the Plano-based brainchild of Kelly Shackelford, who helped push for a statewide gay marriage ban in 2005 that was ultimately voided by the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality ruling a decade later.
After that high court ruling, as the Observer previously reported, Shackelford urged anti-gay Christians to shift their focus toward fighting for the “religious freedom” to, say, refuse to serve same-sex couples. “We’re going to shove that down their throat over and over again in all these cases,” Shackelford said.
If the Senate confirms Trump’s nominees, there’d be two Texas courts receptive to all that shoving.