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D.C. Memo: Blackwell likely headed for federal bench

Plus: GOP ignites a new abortion fight, New York Times questions Minnesota lawmakers’ stock trading

Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell questioning a witness during the second day of the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell questioning a witness during the second day of the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON – Jerry Blackwell, the attorney who helped the state of Minnesota during the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee he grew up in a house with no running water and an outhouse in the back.

On Thursday, those senators voted to move Blackwell’s confirmation to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota to a full vote in the Senate. The St. Paul-based court hears federal cases from across the state.

“Of all the judges I put forward I feel more strongly about this one that I ever have,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who with fellow Minnesota Democrat Sen. Tina Smith had championed Blackwell’s candidacy. Klobuchar also said Blackwell’s mother told her that her son had never lost a civil case in nearly 35 years of practice.

“He will make us proud,” the senator said.

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The vote to move Blackwell’s nomination forward had bipartisan support. Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Lindsey Graham joined 11 Democrats in voting for Blackwell’s nomination. Eight Republican voted against it and another GOP member of the committee, Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, “passed.”

Blackwell who is from Kannapolis, N.C., gave a detailed account of his upbringing at a Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination at the end of July. He told lawmakers that his father was a truck driver with a 10th grade education and his mother, who died when Blackwell was 15 years old, worked in a textile mill.

“Most of the folks I knew in my formative years were working class people,” Blackwell said. “We didn’t know anybody in my neighborhood who went to college.”

Blackwell also said “There will be a broad spectrum of humanity that will appear before the court also and I am grateful that I have had a broad background in dealing with people.”

Another impressive thing Blackwell told the senators – “I was for years a lawyer for Prince.”

Blackwell is a corporate lawyer. But Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison tapped him to help in the prosecution of Chauvin, who killed George Floyd – kneeling on him while handcuffed for more than nine minutes – during an attempted arrest. Blackwell worked pro-bono on the Chauvin case.

“What do you think about law enforcement?”  Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., asked Blackwell.

“I think in some ways that law enforcement were the heroes of the (Chauvin) trial,” Blackwell responded, saying that several officers “testified about the bad policing they saw.”

Thursday’s Judiciary Committee vote virtually guarantees Blackwell’s confirmation. A Senate vote on the nomination has not been scheduled, but may occur before Congress recesses for October to allow lawmakers to campaign.

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Blackwell received both his law and undergraduate degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He is a founding partner of Blackwell Burke, where he has worked since 2006. From 2000 to 2006, Blackwell was a partner at Blackwell Igbanugo in Minneapolis. He’s also worked as a partner at several other law firms and is the founder of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers and the Twin Cities Committee on Minority Lawyers in Large Law Firms.

Fischbach, Emmer push for national abortion ban

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., lobbed a political firebomb this week by introducing a bill in the Senate that would outlaw most abortions after 15 weeks. And the co-chairs of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus – Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Michelle Fischbach, R-7th, followed by introducing a similar bill in the House.

Rep. Tom Emmer, R-6th, is also a sponsor of the House bill, called the “Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children from Late-Term Abortions Act.”

The legislation that would federalize the nation’s abortion law stunned fellow Republicans, many of whom had defended the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade because it allowed state legislatures to determine abortion policy on a state-by-state basis.

The introduction of the bills – which stand no chance of approval in a Senate or House controlled by Democrats – split Republicans in both chambers.

“I think most of the members of my conference prefer that this be dealt with at the state level,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Meanwhile, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said “We’ve have to win a majority before we even have this discussion.”

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Minnesota Reps. Brad Finstad, R-1st, and Pete Stauber. R-8th, are not among the dozens of GOP co-sponsors of the legislation that would restrict abortion nationwide. The lawmakers’ offices did not respond to requests for their position on the bills. Many of their GOP colleagues ducked reporters’ questions on the issue this week.

The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe has helped Democrats in fundraising and is believed to boost some Democratic candidates. In addition, a number of states reported a surge in female voter registrations after the decision.

And some Republicans are concerned that ramping up the fight over abortion will dim the party’s focus on crime and the economy. Even so, some GOP strategists say the introduction of the bills will motivate the Republican “base” to come out and vote in November’s mid-term elections.

Minnesota lawmakers scrutinized for stock trades

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she hopes to take up legislation this month intended to curb stock trades by members of Congress that can create real or perceived conflicts of interest.

Pelosi’s announcement came a day after the  New York Times published an analysis this week that showed that between 2019 and 2021, 97 representatives and senators or their immediate family members had reported trades of stocks, bonds or other financial assets that could have been influenced by committees they were serving on.

Reps. Angie Craig, D-2nd, and Dean Phillips, D-3rd, were included in this list. So was Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn.

In Craig’s case, her college-aged son traded shares of Lyft and Ford in 2019 while she was a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Craig sold all of her individual stocks before joining Congress in 2019 and she said she was not aware her son was trading stocks. She is in favor of a ban on stock ownership and trading by members of Congress and their immediate family.

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“As a mom, I would be grateful if my college student son was not allowed to own or trade stocks. And as a member of Congress, I’m working to pass a law to force him to listen to his mother,” Craig said in a statement.

Meanwhile Smith’s husband, a longtime investor in medical device companies, owned shares in two insulin equipment makers when Smith joined the Senate in 2018. The senator has pushed for more affordable insulin, but said she has no role in her husband’s investment decisions.

“The impact that cheaper insulin would have on the two companies, which make equipment for diabetes patients, is not clear,” the Times said.

Phillips, the wealthiest member of Minnesota’s congressional delegation, and a member of the House Financial Services Committee, bought or sold stocks and bonds issued by more than two dozen banking companies, including Wells Fargo while the committee was investigating the bank, the New York Times said.

A spokesman for the lawmaker told the Times that Phillips has not directed any trades since he was elected and in January 2020 hired a law firm to move his stocks into a blind trust. But it took until July 2021 for most of the stocks to be transferred and as of August, he was still trying to move assets from two additional trusts into new blind trusts that meet the congressional requirements, the spokesman said.

The STOCK Act requires members of Congress to disclose the purchase or sale of stocks valued at more than $1,000 within 45 days of any transaction, but dozens of lawmakers have been found to violate this deadline. And critics – including Craig, Phillips and Smith – say the law’s effort at transparency is not enough to keep lawmakers from conflicts of interest or appearances of conflicts of interest.

For instance, Phillips, Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-5th, Craig and Betty McCollum, D-4th, are co-sponsors of the TRUST in Congress Act, a bill that would require members of Congress and their family to establish qualified blind trusts for their assets.

Meanwhile, negotiations are ongoing over a House package of bills that would provide new federal funds for local law enforcement that moderates, especially those in tough races, are embracing, but some progressives and members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) don’t like.

Omar, who faced a tough primary challenge from a Democrat who ran on his support for the police, is among those trying to negotiate a deal all Democrats could like, spokesman Jeremy Slevin said.

“Congresswoman Omar is working with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the CBC and other Dems to find a way to include some of the pieces of the package that will enhance and support public safety,” Slevin said.