Amul Thapar is rumored to be on President Trump’s shortlist of possible nominees to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement very recently. Thapar, who was born in Troy, Michigan to Indian immigrant parents, is a conservative judge who has close ties to the Trump administration. He was one of the first people President Trump appointed to any position: in March 2016, just two months into the Trump presidency, Trump tapped Thapar to be United States Circuit Judge for the Sixth Circuit.
Thapar is relatively young. He was born in 1969, making him just 49 years old. But already, Thapar has both friends and enemies in high places. He is considered a close friend and protege of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose home state of Kentucky falls within the 6th Circuit. McConnell has called Thapar “a qualified judge with an impressive legal mind” and has praised Thapar for always applying the law fairly. On the other end of the spectrum, Elizabeth Warren, the left-leaning senator from Massachussetts, vehemently opposed Thapar when he was nominated to the sixth circuit. “There is a lot to object to about Judge Thapar,” Warren told the Senate, before launching into a list of her disagreements with the judge’s policies. She slammed Thapar for his rulings against strict campaign finance laws, and in favor of tough minimum sentencing for drug and property crimes. Activist groups in the left have also strongly opposed Thapar for the same reasons, painting him as a friend of big corporations who is oblivious to the needs of ordinary people.
Thapar is only the second South Asian American ever to serve on the US district court of appeals. The South Asian Bar Association of North America praised Trump for nominating Thapar to that post, even though the association has been critical of President Trump.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Thapar Issued a Controversial Ruling That Allowed Judges to Make Contributions to Political Campaigns
While Thapar was a judge in federal district court in Kentucky, he issued a controversial ruling in a case called Winter vs Wolnitzek. The case hinged on whether a judge has the right to show his political affiliation, and campaign on behalf of a political candidate. Thapar ruled that not only can a judge make speeches on behalf of a candidate, he can also make campaign contributions. Before this case, Kentucky law prohibited judges from donating money to political candidates, because the state wanted judges to appear as impartial as possible.
In his ruling, Thapar reportedly referred to the controversial legal theory that “money is speech”. In other words, campaign contributions should be given the same protections as speech is. This legal argument is supported by a 1976 Supreme Court decision on campaign finance. The court ruled that it is illegal to limit election spending, because campaign donations are a form of free speech.
The appeals court later overturned parts of Thapar’s decision in this case — including the provision allowing judges to give money to political campaigns.
2. Thapar Has a Reputation for Being Dismissive of Sexual Harassment Suits
During his time on the bench, Thapar heard several prominent cases about sexual harassment. The first, Wasek v Arrow Energy Services, was a 2012 case involving a man who claimed that he was sexually harassed by a male co-worker while operating an oil rig in Pennsylvania. The plaintiff, Wasek, said that his co-worker, Paul Ottobre, repeatedly poked him in the rear with a long rod, and told him things like, “you have a pretty mouth,” “boy, you have pretty lips,” and “you know you like it, sweetheart.”
Thapar ruled that the situation was not sexual harassment because the prosecution was unable to prove that Ottobre was a homosexual. Without this proof, Thapar ruled, it was impossible to say that he was sexually harassing, rather than simply harassing, the plaintiff. The case was widely criticized by NGOs and activists on the left.
By 2017, Thapar was known for being dismissive of sexual harassment cases. In the case of a student accused of sexual harassment at Denison University, observers of the case said with confidence that it “seems highly likely that the third judge—Amul Thapar, a Trump nominee, who at one point in the hearing said that the district judge who dismissed the complaint had “erred”—will vote in favor of the accused student.”
3. Thapar is in Favor of Tough sentences for Drug-related Crimes
In 2015, Thapar gave a speech at Columbia University’s law school and argued that there should be tough minimum sentences for drug crimes. Thapar told the audience that California’s Proposition 47, which reduced low-level drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, had increased the existing levels of crime in the state.
Thapar also said that the current judicial system does not punish repeat offenders harshly enough. He added that 20 percent prisoners have a record of 15 or more prior convictions. “The way to stop recidivism is to keep the recidivists in jail,” he said.
4. Thapar Once Sentenced a Nun to Three Years in Jail After a Protest at a Nuclear Power Plant
In 2014, an 84 year old nun named Megan Rice broke into a uranium-processing building in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Rice, along with two other protesters, poured human blood on parts of the building as a protest against nuclear weapons. The group notes that they poured only six baby bottles of “purely obtained” blood on the walls. The facility at Oak Ridge is the main storage site for bomb-grade uranium in the United States. Sister Megan and the other protesters were all members of Plowshares, a pacifist movement strongly opposed to nuclear weapons.
They were convicted of interfering with national security. Judge Thapar sentenced the 84 year old nun to 35 months in jail. He gave the other protesters 5 years each, since they had prior records. Sister Megan reportedly asked Thapar to sentence her to life in prison, because she wanted to prove her absolute dedication to the fight against nuclear weapons. Thapar gave her a three year sentence instead, and said he hoped that the prison terms would bring Sister Megan and her co-defendents “back to the political system I fear that they have given up on.”
Sister Megan’s sentence was overturned in 2015, and she was released from jail after an appellate court ruled that the prosecution had “overreached” in charging her with interfering with national security.
5. Thapar Says He Agrees With Justice Scalia That Judges Should Stick to the Letter of the Law
Thapar told an audience at the University of Virginia that there should be a clear separation of powers between judges, who enforce the law, and lawmakers, who write the law. Thapar praised the ultra-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who was well-known for saying that the Constitution should be interpreted literally, according to the meaning originally intended by the Founding Fathers, and not interpreted to suit our modern world. Thapar said that he completely agrees with Justice Antonin Scalia, who called for a strict “textual” approach when interpreting laws. He said judges should “stay in their lanes” and enforce the laws exactly as they are written, instead of becoming activists who try to change existing laws. Thapar added that by strictly enforcing the letter of the law, judges also give Congress an incentive to rewrite bad laws, or write new laws as needed.
A left-leaning Louisville attorney named Kent Wicker has said that, indeed, Thapar’s politics aren’t on display when he is handling a case. “His judicial philosophy is to get the right answer and do the right thing,” Wicker said. “He tries to follow the law.”