STARKVILLE — While most people aspire to the assurance that judges are first and foremost fair and unbiased in their rulings, President Donald Trump’s nomination of Southern District U.S. Federal Judge Halil Suleyman “Sul” Ozerden of Gulfport to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has evoked a far different response from some segments of the far right, led by Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Cruz, who fought Trump hammer and tong for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, lost a truly bitter primary battle against him that included the worst sorts of personal attacks. During the campaign, Trump went after Cruz, Cruz’s wife and his father — citing a National Enquirer story that linked the elder Cruz to JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
Not to be outdone, Cruz answered with some attacks of his own, calling Trump a “narcissist” and “serial philanderer” and someone for whom “morality doesn’t exist.”
Let’s step back from the Trump v. Cruz battle and focus on Judge Ozerden. Born in Hattiesburg to a family of Turkish immigrants in 1966, he graduated from Georgetown University and spent six years as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot flying missions in Somalia and Iraq. After his military service, he graduated from Stanford Law School in 1998.
Eight years later, while a partner in a Gulf Coast private firm, Ozerden was nominated for the U.S. District Court seat he now holds by President George W. Bush and then unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate. He has spent 12 years on the federal bench.
Let’s also focus on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Comprised of the states of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, the court is among the nation’s most conservative. All the U.S. senators in all three states are Republican. The Mississippi vacancy on the bench, created by Grady Jolly’s 2017 decision to take senior status, has languished almost two years.
The process of replacing Jolly was slow-rolled by the Trump administration, and Ozerden wasn’t formally nominated to the post by Trump until April 2018. The Senate held hearings earlier this year on the Ozerden nomination. Opposition to Ozerden from Cruz and another Republican senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, have further stalled the confirmation process.
For the record, both of Mississippi’s Republican U.S. senators strongly support the Ozerden nomination.
Currently on the 5th Circuit, Texas has nine judges, Louisiana has five and Mississippi two and one vacancy.
Trump’s five prior judicial nominations to the 5th Circuit — three from Texas, two from Louisiana — had the strong political blessings of the White House Counsel’s Office and of the Federalist Society. Ozerden’s nomination is being targeted as a case of the Gulf Coast jurist not being “conservative enough.”
But Cruz and Hawley’s opposition seems more rooted in feathering their own political nests with groups that want political “purity” judicial nominees, whose decisions will be founded more in political postures than in the law.
Cruz railed against “judicial activism” on the campaign trail in Iowa in 2015. But in the case of Ozerden, it seems Cruz doesn’t see the judge’s prospects for conservative judicial activism being quite strong enough.
Ozerden’s judicial record reflects that Trump may have been onto something when he hung the moniker “Lyin’ Ted” around the senator’s neck.
• Sid Salter is director of the Office of University Relations at Mississippi State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.