Kelly Coyle

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William Barr sworn in as U.S. attorney general

William Pelham Barr was sworn in as the 85th United States attorney general, marking his second time in the position. Barr was confirmed by the Senate on Thursday by a vote of 54-45. He was sworn in the same day.

Fifty-one Republicans and three Democrats—Sens. Doug Jones (Ala.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), and Krysten Sinema (Ariz.)—voted for Barr. Forty-four members of the Democratic caucus and Republican Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) voted against Barr’s nomination.

President Donald Trump announced his intent to nominate Barr to the position on December 7, 2018, and he was formally nominated on January 3, 2019. There were 42 days from nomination to confirmation for Barr. The average number of days from nomination to confirmation for Trump administration Cabinet members and Cabinet-rank officials is 36 days.

Barr previously served as the 77th United States attorney general under former President George H.W. Bush from November 1991 to January 1993. He was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.

The only other person to serve as attorney general twice was John J. Crittenden. He served as the 15th and 22nd attorney general from March 1841 to September 1841 and July 1850 to March 1853.

SCOTUS returns for February sitting

The U.S. Supreme Court will be back in session next week for its February sitting. The justices will hear two cases next week and six this month.

The first case—Return Mail v. U.S. Postal Service—is a patent law case that will be heard on Tuesday. The second case—Mission Product Holdings v. Tempnology LLC—is a trademark licensing case that will be heard on Wednesday.

SCOTUS has 71 cases on its argument schedule this term. Forty-two cases have been heard, and 27 cases are scheduled for argument.

The justices have issued eight decisions, seven of which were unanimous.

Read more about this term’s cases by signing up for Ballotpedia’s Bold Justice newsletter.

Senate committee advances Trump’s attorney general nominee

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the nomination of William Barr to be U.S. attorney general by a vote of 12-10, along party lines. His nomination now heads to the Senate where he will need a simple majority for confirmation. Republicans hold a 53 to 47 majority.
Trump announced his intent to nominate Barr as attorney general on December 7, 2018, and he was formally nominated on January 3, 2019. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a confirmation hearing for Barr on January 15-16, 2019.
Barr served as the 77th United States attorney general under former President George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993. At that time, he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.

Trump delivers second State of the Union address; Abrams delivers response

President Donald Trump delivered his second State of the Union address on February 5. He called on members of Congress from both parties to work with him “to achieve historic breakthroughs for all Americans. Millions of our fellow citizens are watching us now, gathered in this great chamber, hoping that we will govern not as two parties but as one nation.  The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda.  It’s the agenda of the American people.”
He discussed his immigration plan, which includes “humanitarian assistance, more law enforcement, drug detection at our ports, closing loopholes that enable child smuggling, and plans for a new physical barrier, or wall, to secure the vast areas between our ports of entry.” Trump also discussed trade, infrastructure, drug pricing, healthcare, abortion, socialism, and Afghanistan, among other issues. He called on members of Congress to work with him to create “a new standard of living for the 21st century” and “reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution, and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good.”
Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia in 2018 and former Georgia House minority leader, delivered the Democratic response to Trump’s State of the Union address. Abrams is the first black woman to deliver a response to a president’s State of the Union speech. Abrams spoke about the government shutdown, gun safety measures, education, immigration, and voter suppression, among other issues. She concluded her speech by speaking directly about Trump, saying, “So even as I am very disappointed by the president’s approach to our problems -– I still don’t want him to fail. But we need him to tell the truth, and to respect his duties and the extraordinary diversity that defines America.” She then called for a “renewed commitment to social and economic justice.”

Senate committee advances Trump’s EPA nominee

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works advanced the nomination of Andrew Wheeler to be Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator by a vote of 11-10, along party lines. His nomination now heads to the Senate where he will need a simple majority for confirmation. Republicans hold a 53 to 47 majority in the U.S. Senate.
President Donald Trump announced his intent to nominate Wheeler as EPA administrator on November 16, 2018. During a White House ceremony for Medal of Freedom recipients, Trump said, “He’s done a fantastic job and I want to congratulate him.” Trump formally nominated Wheeler on January 9, 2019.
Wheeler currently serves as the acting administrator of the EPA. He took over for former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who resigned in July 2018.
The United States Senate confirmed Wheeler as the EPA deputy administrator on April 12, 2018, by a vote of 53-45. Prior to serving as deputy administrator, Wheeler worked as a lobbyist for the energy industry and as a staffer in the Senate.

U.S. intel officials cite cooperation between China and Russia as top security threat

U.S. intelligence officials delivered their annual assessment of global threats to national security to Congress, identifying cooperation between China and Russia as their top concern.
During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Chris Wray, and Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel said that cyber warfare, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism pose the biggest threats to the U.S.
The threat assessment report focused on the relationship between China and Russia and stated that the two countries “are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s, and the relationship is likely to strengthen in the coming year as some of their interests and threat perceptions converge, particularly regarding perceived US unilateralism and interventionism and Western promotion of democratic values and human rights.”
Intelligence officials said that they expect Russia and China to continue to interfere in U.S. elections. They also warned that China is capable of launching cyberattacks that could disable U.S. critical infrastructure.
Intelligence officials warned members of Congress about the ongoing threats posed by chemical weapons and terrorism. They found that “North Korea, Russia, Syria, and ISIS have used chemical weapons on the battlefield or in assassination operations during the past two years.” Additionally, they identified Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia as hotspots for terrorism, and they said that ISIS would continue to pose a global threat despite losing territorial ground in Syria.

U.S. to suspend INF treaty with Russia

The Trump administration said that it will suspend its obligations under the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, effective February 2, 2019. The administration said that Russia is not complying with the treaty.
In a statement, President Donald Trump explained the decision to leave the treaty, saying, “The United States has fully adhered to the INF Treaty for more than 30 years, but we will not remain constrained by its terms while Russia misrepresents its actions. We cannot be the only country in the world unilaterally bound by this treaty, or any other. We will move forward with developing our own military response options and will work with NATO and our other allies and partners to deny Russia any military advantage from its unlawful conduct.”
The process of leaving the treaty is expected to be completed in six months, but Trump said that the U.S. would consider complying with the treaty if Russia destroys all of its missiles, launchers, and associated equipment prohibited by the treaty.
NATO released a statement in support of the Trump administration’s decision. “Unless Russia honours its INF Treaty obligations through the verifiable destruction of all of its 9M729 systems, thereby returning to full and verifiable compliance before the U.S. withdrawal takes effect in six months, Russia will bear sole responsibility for the end of the treaty,” the statement said.
In 2014, members of the Obama administration accused Russia of violating the treaty because of its development of a 9M729 cruise missile, and the Trump administration reiterated the same concerns in December 2018.
The INF Treaty, which was signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, prohibits the use of intermediate- and shorter-range rockets. It also prohibits testing, producing, or fielding ground-based missiles.

Senate rejects two proposals to end the partial government shutdown

On January 24, 2019, the U.S. Senate rejected two proposals to end the partial government shutdown that began on December 22, 2018. The plan backed by President Donald Trump failed by a vote of 50-47. It needed 60 votes to pass. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) was the only Democrat who supported the bill. Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) were the only Republicans who opposed the bill. The legislation proposed allocating $5.7 billion in border-wall funding, providing temporary protections for DACA and certain Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients, and funding unfunded government agencies.
The Democratic-backed plan failed by a vote of 52-44. Six Republicans—Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Mitt Romney (Utah), and Johnny Isakson (Ga.)—voted with Democrats for the continuing resolution to fund the government through February 8, 2019. It did not include funding for border security.
The votes took place on the 34th day of the partial shutdown. Trump said that he would not sign legislation to reopen the federal government if it does not include funding for a border wall or barrier. Democrats have refused to vote for funding for a border wall.

SCOTUS agrees to hear firearms case

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York, New York. The case concerns provisions of New York City’s premises license that prevent a gun owner from transporting a licensed, locked, and unloaded handgun to a home or shooting range outside city limits.
A group of New York gun owners is arguing that not being able to travel outside of the city limits with a handgun violates their Second Amendment right, the dormant Commerce Clause, the First Amendment right of expressive association, and the fundamental right to travel.
It is the first firearms case the court has agreed to hear since 2010 when it heard McDonald v. Chicago, in which it held that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense applies to state and local gun laws. The case will likely be heard during the court’s October 2019-2020 term, according to SCOTUSblog’s Amy Howe.

SCOTUS issues seventh unanimous ruling this term

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its seventh unanimous ruling of the 2018-2019 term in Helsinn Healthcare S.A. v. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc., a patent law case. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion affirming the ruling of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. It was Justice Thomas’ third opinion this term.
The court has heard arguments in 43 cases and issued eight rulings so far. The court has agreed to hear arguments in 29 more cases this term.
The justices will return to the court on February 19, 2019, for oral arguments. Click here for a list of cases to be heard at the February sitting.