The federal judge who ordered Rowan County clerk Kim Davis to jail over her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples has faced controversy before — notably when he was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2001 to serve as the U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Kentucky.
Critics including the American Bar Association were skeptical that at age 35, David Bunning – the son of then-junior Kentucky U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning – was tapped for the bench at the recommendation of the state’s senior senator, who would go on to become the majority leader, Mitch McConnell.
Judge Bunning on Thursday ordered Davis be jailed until she agrees to issue the marriage licenses, which Davis says interferes with her Christian beliefs.
Here are five things to know about the judge.
1. Mitch McConnell Was an ‘Enthusiastic Supporter’ of the Bush Nominee
During the November 2001 confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, McConnell called himself an “enthusiastic supporter of David Bunning’s nomination,” noting that Bunning’s personal qualities include his “faith” and “mercy.”
“David Bunning is not just a skilled and experienced practitioner. He possesses the other personal qualities that are essential for the effective administration of justice,” McConnell said. “Among these are honesty, integrity, candor, diligence, courage, and last but not least, mercy … He is devoted to his faith and his wife, Kay, and from what I hear, he is also a pretty good son. He will do Kentucky and the nation proud.”
2. The Son of a Prominent Senator and Baseball Legend
Bunning’s father was a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies and Detroit Tigers before representing Kentucky for six terms in the House in the late 1980s and early 1990s and for two terms the Senate from 1999 through 2011. The retiring Bunning endorsed Rand Paul to be his successor in the 2010 Republican primary against the McConnell-backed candidate Trey Grayson.
Before serving in Congress, Jim Bunning was in the state legislature, and was somewhat of a celebrity nominee of the Republican Party in the 1983 Kentucky governor’s race, an election he lost.
3. The American Bar Association Called Him Unqualified
After Bush nominated Bunning for the judgeship, the ABA said he wasn’t qualified for the post because of a lack of experience.
At the time, the University of Kentucky law school graduate had 10 years experience as an assistant U.S. attorney. The ABA wants federal judges to have at least 12 years of experience.
An attorney reviewing Bunning for the ABA at the time said his writings “read very much like the work of a young associate,” the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.
Bunning told the Judiciary Committee his experience has been put to good use.
“I have had the opportunity to use prosecutorial discretion and objectivity for the U.S. attorney’s Office, and if I am fortunate enough to be confirmed by the Senate, I will have just one client, and that is making sure that the rule of law is followed,” the younger Bunning told the committee, according to the confirmation hearing transcript. “I have spent 10 years advocating that it be followed and I believe I have a unique perspective in handling issues which would come before me and making sure that justice is achieved in every case, and I will work tirelessly to make sure that happens.”
What looked like a potentially rocky nomination in a Senate controlled by Democrats at the time sailed through, with only a few concerns raised by Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahey (D-Vt.). After unanimous committee approval, the full Senate confirmed Bunning in a voice vote in February 2002.
4. Not a Reliable Conservative
Despite being appointed by a Republican president, Bunning has had other rulings that have riled conservatives.
In 2007, Bunning was part of a three-judge panel on a federal appeals court to overturn a Michigan ban on partial-birth abortion, determining the language of the law to be overly broad with the potential to outlaw other legal types of abortion.
In 2003, Judge Bunning ordered the Boyd County Kentucky School District to allow the Gay-Straight Alliance, a student group, to meet on school grounds.
Boyd County held training sessions on avoiding anti-gay harassment, and penalized students with unexcused absences for not showing up. When parents sued the school district, Bunning ruled in favor of the school district.
5. Judge’s Mother Says ‘He Loves the Lord’
Mary Bunning, the judge’s mother and senator’s wife, said her Catholic son is devoted to his faith.
“He loves the Lord. He loves family. What else more can you expect of a young man?” she told the Cincinnati Inquirer.
“David is an honest person,” Mary Bunning continued. “He doesn’t agree with the Supreme Court but has to obey the law.”