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Mark Bennett, a former Hawaii attorney general, was confirmed Tuesday along bipartisan lines to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Bennett, who now works in private practice in Honolulu, was nominated in February by President Donald Trump with the support of both of Hawaii’s Democratic senators, Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz.
And while the path to confirmation was relatively smooth, Bennett did face some opposition from conservatives for his previous stance on gun control and other issues while working as the state’s attorney general.
He was confirmed 72 to 27 with all Democrats voting in his favor.
That breakdown is notable given the looming fight over Trump’s latest pick for the U.S. Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, who is expected to solidify the court’s conservative leanings.
“Mark is recognized as one of the best qualified lawyers in the State of Hawaii,” Hirono said in statement after voting to confirm Bennett. “I have every confidence that Mark will put his skills and experience to good use on the bench as a fair and impartial judge, beholden to nothing but the law and the Constitution.”
Hirono introduced Bennett during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in April, and has been a strong advocate for him.
She did, however, vote against ending debate on his confirmation Monday as part of a political pledge she made to oppose all of the Trump’s judicial nominees, at least when it comes to motions for cloture.
Schatz issued his own statement after Tuesday’s vote, voicing his support for Bennett, who was Hawaii’s attorney general when Schatz was in the Legislature.
“I am very pleased to see Mark Bennett confirmed with a decisive bipartisan vote in the Senate. This is the way the process is supposed to work,” Schatz said. “Even though we were on different sides of the aisle, Mark was never difficult to work with, because he never had a partisan agenda.”
Bennett’s nomination was opposed by the Gun Owners of America, a pro-gun lobbying group that describes the Second Amendment as “liberty’s freedom teeth” and considers itself more militant and less compromising than the National Rifle Association.
The group boasts 1.5 million members, and over the last several months has asked its supporters to oppose Bennett’s nomination by contacting their senators.
In a rallying cry sent out via email and posted prominently on the GOA website near an article announcing the winner of a Fourth of July AR-15 giveaway, the group described Bennett as a “leftist, anti-gunner.”
At issue was a brief he filed in 2008 in support of stricter gun laws in the U.S. Supreme Court, District of Columbia v. Heller, which is considered a seminal case for gun rights activists as it strengthened the court’s interpretation of the individual right to bear arms.
Bennett, who was appointed as Hawaii’s attorney general by Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, was one of a handful of attorneys general to support the District of Columbia in the case.
Bennett had previously been pressed on the topic by Sens. Ted Cruz and John Kennedy during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, but it wasn’t enough to derail his nomination.
“Understandably, Democrats are giddy,” said GOA’s legal counsel, Michael Hammond, in one of the group’s emails to supporters. “In fact, anti-gun Senator Mazie Hirono called him ‘refreshing.’”
In an interview with Civil Beat, Hammond said he estimated the GOA’s message was received by hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S., although he admitted he didn’t expect Bennett’s confirmation to be blocked.
He said the real purpose was to send a message to Trump and other Republicans — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in particular — that they should use their political leverage more aggressively rather than concede to Democrats.
Hammond said he would have preferred to see the nomination held up to make way for other Trump nominees who might be moving slowly through the confirmation process.
“We worked with a number of Republicans in the Senate who had asked us to get involved,” Hammond said. “They didn’t go into this and I don’t think we went into this with the expectation that we would defeat his nomination.
“But I think we did want to send a message to Donald Trump and others that basically nominating a liberal to one of the three or four most important courts in the country, because they should represent a liberal state is not something that Barack Obama would have done in the reverse and it is not something Trump should do.”
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