President Joe Biden had planned to nominate a conservative opponent of abortion rights to a lifetime federal judgeship in Kentucky, according to newly released emails, prompting criticism of the White House from some fellow Democrats.
After facing opposition from Democrats in Kentucky, the White House has not put former state solicitor general Chad Meredith's name forward as a nominee. A round of federal judicial nominations released last week did not include Meredith. It was unclear Wednesday whether the White House would ever move forward with nominating him.
But the episode has underscored the impassioned responses from Democrats in the wake of the Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade. At times, Democrats have directed some of their anger at the White House.
On June 23, White House official Kate Marshall emailed Coulter Minix, the director of Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear's office in Washington. "To be Nominated tomorrow," the message read, followed by the qualifications and experience of Meredith, whom the Biden administration planned to nominate to be a judge in the Eastern District of Kentucky the next day.
The email, released Wednesday, was titled "close hold," meaning information that is not supposed to be widely distributed. Minix said he would "share the info and appreciate the heads up."
The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade the next day, jolting the country and igniting demands that Democratic elected leaders do all they could to protect access to abortions. An email that followed a few days later included what appeared to be an effort to contain potential fallout.
"Sorry for not including this in the original email," wrote Marshall, a former lieutenant governor in Nevada who joined the White House's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs in August. "But I wanted to clarify that the email I sent was pre-decisional and privileged information. Please let me know if you have any questions. Thank you. Kate."
The governor's office initially told news outlets the exchange between Marshall and Minix was conditional and could not be released. It was ultimately obtained Wednesday by The Washington Post and other news organizations after a public records request. The office of Beshear, a Democrat, declined to comment on Wednesday, referring reporters to statements he made in a news conference.
The revelations have ignited criticism of a president who vowed to do everything he could to protect abortion rights -- and urged incensed voters to express their anger by voting for fellow Democrats in the midterms.
They have also raised tensions between the White House and Democratic elected officials in Kentucky, including Rep. John Yarmuth and Beshear, who confirmed and criticized the administration's intent to nominate Meredith.
"If the president makes that nomination, it is indefensible," Beshear said at a news conference last Thursday. He pointed to Meredith's role in a series of controversial pardons at the end of the governorship of Republican Matt Bevin, including of a man convicted of raping a child. Beshear called Meredith "an individual who aided and advised on the most egregious abuse of power by a governor in my lifetime."
Yarmuth issued a recent statement accusing Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., of striking a prior agreement over Meredith.
"Given that a judicial position isn't currently open on the Eastern District Court, it's clear that this is part of some larger deal on judicial nominations between the President and Mitch McConnell," Yarmuth said in a statement. "I strongly oppose this deal and Meredith being nominated for the position. That last thing we need is another extremist on the bench."
Scott Sloofman, a spokesman for McConnell, denied there was any such arrangement. "Discussions about Judge Caldwell's seat have only involved who should fill Judge Caldwell's seat," Sloofman said in a statement, referring to the vacancy that was ultimately revealed publicly.
Both the White House and the Kentucky governor's office have declined to expound on the conversations and decisions involving Meredith.
The new details add to denunciations the White House has received since the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to an abortion established in Roe. Many abortion rights advocates have said Biden responded to the ruling with inadequate force, adding to concerns over his handling of other issues and widening fissures in a political party facing stiff head winds ahead of the November election.
The White House has tried to avoid questions about what, if any, desire Biden had for Meredith to serve on the federal bench. When asked about it Wednesday on Air Force One, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre deflected.
"So we don't -- we -- we make it a point here to not comment on any -- on any vacancy, whether it is on the executive branch or judicial branch, especially those that have not -- have not -- the nomination has not been made yet," she told reporters. "So I don't have anything to say on that. It is something that we just don't comment on."
She also would not say whether the administration has a rule to not nominate judges who oppose abortion.
Critics have gone after the White House for not having a better plan to protect reproductive rights -- or other privacy rights that could be affected by the decision -- especially because a draft opinion leaked weeks before the official ruling.
A consortium of abortion rights groups voiced anger at the administration, pointing out that appointing conservative judges to the federal bench had paved the way for Roe v. Wade to be overturned.
"We are in a national abortion crisis," said a statement from groups including NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "We are in this moment because antiabortion judges were intentionally nominated at every level to take away our fundamental right to abortion -- and given his record, we know Chad Meredith would be no exception."
The White House said it has convened meetings with stakeholders to form a plan to combat the results of the Supreme Court decision. Among other measures, the administration said it would seek to protect access to mifepristone, an abortion pill that can be prescribed via a telehealth visit and delivered in the mail, skirting some state restrictions. Biden said he would also protect women who travel across state lines seeking an abortion.
During five decades in political office, Biden has been openly conflicted over abortion, at times struggling to square the views shaped by his Catholic faith with those of his political party.
For most of his career, he has supported abortion rights but opposed federal funding for the procedure, including in some instances of pregnancies resulting from rape and incest. And he was among the few Democrats in 1982 to vote for a constitutional amendment that would have let states bypass Roe v. Wade and restrict abortion.
After Roe v. Wade was overturned, he said the rights taken away by the court threatened other freedoms, and sought to turn the fight for reproductive rights into a midterm campaign issue.
“This fall, we must elect more senators and representatives who will codify a woman’s right to choose into federal law once again, elect more state leaders to protect this right at the local level,” he said from the White House two hours after the Supreme Court’s decision. “We need to restore the protections of Roe as law of the land. We need to elect officials who will do that. This fall, Roe is on the ballot. Personal freedoms are on the ballot. The right to privacy, liberty, equality, they’re all on the ballot.”