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A conservative group funded by the Koch brothers is turning its attention to a new front - the judiciary. Americans for Prosperity says it's willing to spend nearly a million dollars to confirm judges this year. Those lifetime appointments could reshape the courts for a generation. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Sarah Field says there's a simple reason why Americans for Prosperity decided to pay attention to the federal bench.
SARAH FIELD: The fact of the matter is that so much of what affects us in our daily lives plays out in the courtroom.
JOHNSON: Field says her hiring as the group's new vice president for judicial strategy is the first step in a yearslong effort.
FIELD: We're prepared to spend a high six figures on this investment this year.
JOHNSON: Even more important than the money could be the firepower AFP wants to engage. The idea is to mobilize conservative activists across 36 states for key confirmation fights this year - people who call their home state senators, write letters and knock on doors.
ERIC BOTT: Well, it's a little cold here in Wisconsin yet, so not a whole lot of door knocking quite yet. But it's potential for the future.
JOHNSON: That's Eric Bott, Wisconsin state director for AFP. In the past 10 years, Bott says 130,000 volunteers have rallied for Tea Party causes, supported Republican Governor Scott Walker and fought for changes to the state's collective bargaining laws. Now they're turning attention to judges.
BOTT: A lot of our activists are really looking for certain types of jurists. They want a judge who is going to respect the rule of law. They're looking for a judge who's going to interpret the Constitution as it was originally intended.
JOHNSON: AFP has already thrown its support behind one of President Trump's judge picks this year. He's Michael Brennan, a Milwaukee lawyer and an ally of Governor Walker. Wisconsin's Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin refused to turn in a blue slip for Brennan. The blue slip's a way for senators to signal support for a nominee. Withholding that paperwork usually means the end of a nomination. Baldwin has said the White House didn't listen to a state commission that recommends judges. But the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley, broke with 100 years of tradition and held a hearing for Brennan anyway. Again, Eric Bott.
BOTT: We really applaud Senator Grassley for bypassing the blue slip process here. It's been unfortunate that one of our senators, Senator Tammy Baldwin, has, in our view, played politics.
JOHNSON: Last month, Brennan advanced out of the committee on a party-line vote of 11-10. He's waiting for action by the full U.S. Senate. Sarah Field of AFP says her group is buying digital ads to encourage a quick vote.
FIELD: This is a seat that has been vacant longer than any other seat on the federal bench. And the people of Wisconsin deserve to see a judge confirmed on the 7th Circuit.
KRISTINE LUCIUS: My name is Kristine Lucius. And I'm with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
JOHNSON: Lucius has worked on judge nominations for more than 15 years. She points out the current nominee, Michael Brennan, wrote an opinion piece supporting Republican efforts to block President Obama's pick for the job. The delay strategy worked.
LUCIUS: And to think that that person who defended that right would now enjoy the nomination and be critical of the other senator who is exercising her own rights is the epitome of hypocrisy.
JOHNSON: Lucius now fights with civil rights groups and against many of Trump's selections for the federal courts. But she says she understands why AFP is stepping up its role.
LUCIUS: To me, it's not surprising that the Koch brothers, billionaire corporate leaders, would want to invest their money in the fight to get judges to uphold their corporate rights.
JOHNSON: Judges confirmed to lifetime posts already represent one of the president's most important accomplishments. And groups on both ends of the political spectrum know that other big fights are on the way. From her headquarters in Virginia, Sarah Field of AFP says she's gearing up.
FIELD: Everything that we're doing is really pointing to the future of the Supreme Court.
JOHNSON: She says unlike some other conservative groups, AFP will make federal judges a focus of its permanent grass-roots efforts. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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