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Some of his followers are being sought by the FBI. It’s not stopping the leader of the Oath Keepers.

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By Mallory Simon, Sara Sidner and Anna-Maja Rappard, CNN
Updated 11:36 PM ET, Mon February 15, 2021

(CNN) — The FBI is investigating some of his followers. Others are already in custody and facing decades in prison if convicted of federal charges connected to the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. But the national leader of the extremist Oath Keepers group is carrying on as before. He might even be emboldened.

“You gotta declare this regime to be illegitimate,” Stewart Rhodes said on Infowars on January 30 – 24 days after the riot amid the violence that left five dead and delayed the certification of President Joe Biden’s election win. “You gotta to declare everything that comes out of King Biden’s mouth as illegitimate — null and void from the inception because he is not a legitimate president.” 
Rhodes is still peddling the falsehood that the election was illegitimate. He says Biden’s administration and supporters in Congress should be seen as an occupying enemy force and issues warnings about what he claims are 365 million armed patriots ready to “rise up.”
“There is going to be resistance. The only question is what will be the spark,” Rhodes said in a January 30 interview on Infowars, a media organization that is one of the leading purveyors of conspiracy theories in the US. “They keep pushing,” he said of who he calls “leftists.” “That is why it’s important… Let them be the ones who draw first blood. Then you defend.” 
    Rhodes spoke to CNN in the days after the violent invasion of the Capitol, but did not return multiple calls and emails to comment on the future of the Oath Keepers for this story.
    But his rhetoric after the insurrection in interviews and postings reviewed by CNN mirrors what he urged his followers beforehand when he encouraged them to attend the January 6 rally.
    “All Patriots who can get to DC need to be in DC. Now is the time to stand. It’s not too late to go. Jump on a plane! Jump in your car! Just get there,” Rhodes said on his group’s website on January 4.  ”Stand now, or kneel forever.” 

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    Oath Keepers inside the Capitol

    Rhodes’ call was apparently heard and heeded by a number of people who entered the Capitol on that bloody day, including former members of the military who the Oath Keepers group actively recruits for membership
    Jessica Watkins, confirmed by Rhodes as being an Oath Keeper, has emerged as one of the central figures in the government’s case against the insurrectionists.
    She was photographed with Rhodes — a figure made distinctive by a black eye patch — in November during a “Stop the Steal” and “Million Maga March” event in Washington, DC.
    Watkins, who served in the Army, is charged along with two other military veterans and alleged Oath Keepers Donovan Crowl and Thomas Caldwell, with conspiracy and other charges related to the attack.
    “We are in the mezzanine. We are in the main dome right now. We are rocking it,” Watkins said on a walkie talkie app, according to federal prosecutors. They say she was coordinating with others.
    “We’re in the f**kin’ Capitol, Crowl!” Watkins, rear, is said to have yelled to Crowl as Crowl shot selfie video, according to the complaint against them
    Watkins and Crowl are both being held in jail and neither had an assigned lawyer at the time this story was published. Caldwell is accused of coordinating with Watkins and Crowl before, during and after the assault. His lawyer says Caldwell denies involvement with the Oath Keepers.
    He also says Caldwell has worked for the FBI. An FBI spokesperson said it was “policy not to comment on personnel matters and CNN is unable to confirm Caldwell’s work for the FBI. But a source with inside knowledge of how the Oath Keepers operate told CNN there are members who are in federal law enforcement, but kept off the official member database for plausible deniability. 
    The FBI is trying to identify a group of between 8 and 10 people wearing military tactical gear emblazoned with the Oath Keepers’ paraphernalia on the Capitol Steps. One photo shows a few Oath Keepers inside the Capitol rotunda.
    Rhodes, who is not facing charges in connection to January 6, says he did not enter the Capitol building. But he was seen after the assault with the men in Oath Keepers gear now being sought by the FBI.
    The FBI has appealed for information on the group in the FBI photos.
    Rhodes told CNN shortly after the insurrection that he was not anti-government but that he “didn’t trust the FBI right now.”

    Inflammatory rhetoric and offers of help 

    Rhodes, now 55, is an Army veteran and disbarred lawyer who incorporated the Oath Keepers in 2009, after the group rose to prominence during the first election campaign of Barack Obama.
    “Our role is not to be obedient to whoever happens to be the leader. Our role is to defend the Constitution and the republic,” Rhodes told CNN in 2009. 
    Rhodes and other militia groups began denouncing the government as tyrannical, according to Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League.
    Rhodes boasted about trying to recruit active and retired military and law enforcement personnel. The “oath” in the group’s name refers to the pledge to defend the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic, with the subtext that they were not necessarily beholden to obey orders from a government they believe is illegitimate.
    He found ways to insert his group into national flashpoints, positioning members as protectors of society while continuing to use charged rhetoric. Members of the Oath Keepers were in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 during the months-long protests in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown. They said they were there to protect businesses. Their presence was applauded by some owners and shunned by others.  Some Oath Keepers were involved in armed participation in disputes at the Bundy ranch in Nevada, according to the ADL. Rhodes also told people to flock to Washington DC after a standoff at the Bundy ranch.
    During the Obama years, the Oath Keepers were openly an anti-government in their views, according to the ADL and other groups tracking extremism.
    But the rise of political outsider Donald Trump brought a change. Trump’s calls to “Drain the Swamp” and his policy views were now more parallel to Rhodes’ rhetoric than the campaigns of previous presidential nominees.
    In the 2016 election, Rhodes issued a “call to action” dubbed “Operation Sabot” in which he told members and supporters to look for voter fraud or intimidation at polling locations. Rhodes also frequently wrote and referred to Hillary Clinton who he vehemently opposed as “Hitlery.”
    Even then, he used the language of making sure the election was not “stolen from the citizens.” 
    When Trump came to power, Rhodes moved away from criticizing the political leadership and targeted issues on which he and the then-President shared similar feelings — anger about illegal immigration, China and those on the left, and protection for Second Amendment rights. He often spoke of deploying Oath Keepers to the US-Mexico border. He called on Oath Keepers to stand lawfully armed in front of schools after the Parkland school massacre of February 2018.
    Rhodes said his group provided security for VIPs who were attending Trump rallies. And he went further, saying they would help the “average American” prepare if they were to be ”called out by the president of the United States to serve as a militia of the United States to secure the schools, protect our borders, or whatever else he asks them to do to execute our laws, repel invasions and suppress insurrections” which he claimed falsely was being carried out by the left.  
    “We want to see a militia, basically, reestablished in this country and trained up,” he added. 

    Preparing for a ‘steal’

    As Trump ramped up his bid for re-election, Rhodes and other extremist groups started to fan the flames of what could come if he lost, making frequent mention of a “civil war.” As early as July 2019, Rhodes told Alex Jones on Infowars that if Trump was not re-elected “we won’t accept the results” and will have “no choice but to fight.” 
    He boasted his group had veterans who were well trained.  
    “If this kicks off into a civil war, a bloody one, they will instantly go to work and take it to the left,” he said.
    After Biden won the election, Rhodes wrote an open letter to Donald Trump on December 23, urging him among many things to invoke the Insurrection Act, noting “there are millions of American patriots standing ready.” The Act allows, under certain limited circumstances involved in the defense of constitutional rights, the President to deploy troops unilaterally.
    “Do not forsake them. Do not leave them to have to do it all themselves. Keep your promise. Drain the Swamp. Do it now!” Rhodes wrote. “We will help you at every step of the way.” 

    After the siege

    The way words turned to action did not altogether surprise those who have been monitoring groups like the Oath Keepers for years.
    “In late 2020 we saw a sharp uptick in Stewart Rhodes’ violent rhetoric,” Friedfeld, of the ADL told CNN. “He started to frame the election as a line in the sand where if the Democrat won, it would be the imposition of tyranny.”  
    Rhodes told CNN after the violence that he and his members were in Washington, DC, as part of their broad mission of protection. Watkins’ boyfriend told CNN last month she traveled to the capital to “help protect some Trump VIP members” and a man in Oath Keeper garb was seen apparently guarding Trump confidant Roger Stone on the morning of January 6.

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    Rhodes has lost some followers after January 6. The North Carolina chapter quit Rhodes’ group though it said it still supported the mission and would be rebranding, in a letter to their local sheriff that they agreed to share with CNN.
    “We could see the mayhem and wanted no part of it,” wrote Doug Smith, who said he was in Washington DC that day but did not enter the Capitol.
      “The men of North Carolina believe that the National leadership (of Oath Keepers) could have stopped this and did nothing. The men and myself included can no longer be affiliated with Oath Keepers after this sad event in our nation’s history.” 
      But there are many other chapters and members of the group. Accused leaders like Watkins are being held in jail or hunted down for their alleged involvement in the January 6 insurrection. And Rhodes is still preaching and issuing orders to anyone willing to listen.  

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      Politics

      Biden to take first limited steps on gun control, including on ‘ghost guns’ and pistol braces

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      By Kevin Liptak, CNN
      Updated 10:57 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

      (CNN) — President Joe Biden will take his first, limited actions on gun control Thursday, directing his administration to tighten restrictions on so-called ghost guns and pistol stabilizing braces that allow the weapons to be used more accurately, according to a senior administration official.

      The steps — which also include nominating a gun control advocate to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — fulfill a commitment Biden made in the aftermath of two deadly shootings last month to take “common sense” steps right away to address gun violence.
      But they fall short of the sweeping actions Biden promised as a candidate that must be passed by Congress, including a ban on assault weapons or enacting universal background checks. Senior administration officials framed the upcoming announcements as initial steps that would be followed by additional actions later on, including applying pressure on lawmakers to act.
        Biden said last month following a mass shooting in Colorado, “I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common sense steps that will save lives in the future.” But he has acknowledged that passing a massive new infrastructure plan — and not new gun laws — is his top legislative priority.
          Biden will make the announcements Thursday from the White House alongside his attorney general, Merrick Garland, whose Justice Department will be responsible for drafting the proposed rules.
              The announcements will come as the President is expected to nominate David Chipman as the next director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a White House official told CNN. Chipman is a former ATF agent who serves as senior policy adviser at Giffords, the organization led by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who became a gun control advocate after being shot in 2011.
              The ATF has been without a permanent director since 2015.
              Biden also plans to announce new investments in intervention programs in violence-prone communities; a directive to the Justice Department to publish model “red flag” laws for states that allow the temporary removal of guns from people deemed at high risk of harming themselves or others; and a comprehensive report on firearms trafficking.
              Taken together, the actions amount to the first real steps by Biden’s administration to combat gun violence. Inside the White House, efforts to devise executive actions have been led by White House Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice and Office of Public Engagement Director Cedric Richmond, administration officials and gun safety advocacy groups told CNN.
              That included meeting with some of those groups and fielding ideas for steps that Biden could take on his own. Some advocates had been clamoring for steps earlier in the administration, pointing to Biden’s pledge to prioritize gun control during his campaign.
              But initial reaction from gun safety advocacy groups Wednesday evening was positive.
              “Each of these executive actions will start to address the epidemic of gun violence that has raged throughout the pandemic, and begin to make good on President Biden’s promise to be the strongest gun safety president in history,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement.
              “These much-needed executive actions will start saving lives right away, and our grassroots army of nearly 6 million supporters looks forward to standing behind President Biden as he urges the Senate to follow his lead and act,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, said in a statement.
              While campaigning, Biden had said he would task his attorney general with instituting better enforcement of existing gun laws as a means of slowing gun violence. He also made a campaign pledge to send $900 million for community programs meant to combat violence, something the administration is sorting out how to fulfill.
              Following last month’s shootings, Biden called on Congress to take steps like reenacting an assault weapons ban, with Vice President Kamala Harris, who argued for executive actions on the campaign trail, telling “CBS This Morning” that “if we really want something that is going to be lasting, we need to pass legislation.”
              The Democratic-controlled House passed gun legislation that would expand background checks on all commercial gun sales last month, but the bills face tougher paths in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim 50-50 majority and would need significant Republican support to overcome a legislative filibuster.
              Biden acknowledged during a news conference that his main legislative priority was passing an infrastructure package and that he believed careful timing was key to the success of any proposed bills.
              And he has acknowledged that his political capital is limited.
              “I haven’t done any counting yet,” he said in March when asked whether he believed he had enough votes to pass significant reforms.
              As the nation’s posture on guns has evolved, Biden has been front-and-center at most every stop along the way for more than three decades, from the triumph of a 10-year ban on assault weapons in 1994 to the disappointment of a failed push for universal background checks in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.
                Recent shootings in Georgia and Colorado had raised the question inside the West Wing over how much political capital Biden should expend on the matter, which has so often ended in frustration.
                This story has been updated with details about Biden’s executive actions and reaction to them.

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                Politics

                Virginia lawmakers OK marijuana possession starting July 1

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                By Paul LeBlanc and Kay Jones, CNN
                Updated 9:45 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                (CNN) — The Virginia General Assembly on Wednesday passed a bill legalizing simple possession of marijuana, becoming the latest state to modify its laws around cannabis use and possession that disproportionately jailed Black people for nonviolent offenses.

                The new law, which goes into effect July 1, allows anyone in the state 21 or older to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana. The law also “modifies several other criminal penalties related to marijuana, and imposes limits on dissemination of criminal history record information related to certain marijuana offenses,” according to a summary posted to the Legislature’s website.
                “Virginia led and made history once again today,” Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who cast the tie-breaking vote in the state Senate, said in a tweet.
                  “I was proud to cast the tie-breaking vote to legalize marijuana and bring long overdue justice, fairness, equity and opportunity to the people of our great Commonwealth.”
                    The bill had originally passed in late February, but Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam sent it back to the Legislature with a series of revisions, including a proposal to accelerate the timeline of its enactment to this July instead of 2024.
                        Still, the measure was met with fierce opposition from state GOP lawmakers Wednesday, including Del. Chris Head, who called it a “train wreck” during a virtual House floor speech.
                        “If this policy change is to be undertaken, it has to be undertaken prudently, and I understand the enormous pressure on the majority party to make this change right now. I understand that opposing immediate legislation and legalization is going to anger many of your constituents. And I understand that taking the time to do this right might possibly even lead to charges of racism,” he said.
                        “But we have to do this right. And doing it right takes time.”
                        Legalization advocates have long touted the righting of past criminal justice wrongs, eliminating illegal market activity and generating additional tax revenue when they’ve pushed for overhauling state cannabis laws.
                        “At the end of the day, economics talk and jobs talk,” Jessica Billingsley, chief executive officer of Akerna, which makes regulatory compliance software that helps states track cannabis sales from seed to sale, previously told CNN.
                          “I truly believe we’re going to see some very meaningful and important movement coming out of this as states and governors look for a way to bolster their economy.”
                          Cannabis sales in states that have legalized the plant for medical and recreational purposes totaled about $15 billion in 2019, and are expected to top $30 billion by 2024, according to data from BDS Analytics, which tracks dispensary sales.

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                          Politics

                          Biden’s planned pick for ATF director a fierce advocate for gun control

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                          By Paul LeBlanc, CNN
                          Updated 9:30 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                          Washington (CNN) — David Chipman, President Joe Biden’s planned nominee for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, has a long history at the agency and sports credentials in gun control advocacy sure to excite firearm safety groups.

                          If confirmed, Chipman will lead the agency that enforces gun laws at a critical point in Biden’s early tenure, as the President looks to take fresh action on the issue in the wake of two deadly shootings last month.
                          “I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common-sense steps that will save lives in the future,” Biden said last month. The President plans to announce new executive actions on guns Thursday, a person familiar with the plans said.

                            Longtime ATF special agent

                              Chipman, if confirmed, would return to the agency where he worked for 25 years as a special agent.
                                He lists “Violent Crime Reduction Strategist,” “Certified Explosives Specialist” and “Interagency Liason Specialist” among his specialties on his Linkedin profile, and Giffords notes his expertise includes ghost guns, the gun industry, law enforcement and assault weapons.
                                In the President’s first, limited actions on gun control Thursday, Biden will direct his administration to tighten restrictions on so-called ghost guns and pistol stabilizing braces that allow the weapons to be used more accurately, according to a senior administration official. Ghost guns are handmade or self-assembled firearms that don’t have serial numbers, and some can be fabricated in as little as 30 minutes using kits and parts purchased online.
                                The ATF has been without a permanent director since 2015.
                                In recent years, the bureau has become most visible in the aftermath of mass shootings around the US and at other crimes involving firearms. But the agency has a broader scope than just guns.
                                According to its website, ATF “protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products.”
                                “We partner with communities, industries, law enforcement, and public safety agencies to safeguard the public we serve through information sharing, training, research, and use of technology,” the bureau’s website states.

                                Gun control advocacy

                                After leaving the ATF in 2012, Chipman became a senior adviser at Everytown for Gun Safety, where he was “consulted frequently” by lawmakers considering gun control legislation, according to his Linkedin.
                                Chipman then served as senior vice president of Public Safety Solutions for almost three years before arriving at Giffords as a senior policy adviser in 2016.
                                It’s in these roles that Chipman’s voice as a fierce advocate for gun control was elevated, as he frequently wrote op-eds and made media appearances to advance the cause.
                                “As a former ATF special agent with more than 24 years of experience at the bureau, I know all too well how serious our gun violence problem is and how desperately the agency lacks for the law enforcement tools that are necessary to help curb this national epidemic,” Chipman wrote in a 2013 Politico op-ed.
                                The country’s gun safety laws, he wrote at the time, “make it all too easy for guns to fall into the wrong hands — and since Congress has failed to address these gaps legislatively, ATF must chart a new course to combat the scourge of gun violence. This requires strong leadership.”
                                More recently, Chipman voiced support for limiting high-capacity magazines in a 2019 interview with PBS NewsHour.
                                “Talking to any gun owner, a 100-round magazine is just not traditional. It’s not normal. And I can’t think of a purpose, beyond killing a lot of people, for having it,” he said. “So if the debate is, should it be 10 or what have you, it can’t be 100. And so I think there’s room where we can have progress, although we will not have perfection.”
                                  And in light of FBI records last summer showing US firearm background checks having skyrocketed during the Covid-19 pandemic, Chipman told CNN at the time: “My biggest concern involves the potential number of first time gun buyers who, before March, did not think they needed a gun.”
                                  This story has been updated with additional details Wednesday.

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                                  Politics

                                  Andrew Giuliani, former Trump aide and son of Rudy Giuliani, says he plans for to run for governor of New York

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                                  By Devan Cole, CNN
                                  Updated 12:16 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                                  Washington (CNN) — Andrew Giuliani, the son of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, says he’s planning to run for governor of the heavily Democratic state next year.

                                  “I plan to run,” Andrew Giuliani, who served as an aide to former President Donald Trump, told the Washington Examiner in an interview published Wednesday.
                                  Giuliani’s gubernatorial bid could set up a high stakes, headline-grabbing showdown with Andrew Cuomo, should the embattled incumbent Democratic governor decide to seek a fourth term. But Giuliani would face a steep uphill battle in the heavily Democratic state, and his candidacy could help hand another win to the party as his proximity to Trump would likely be seen as a liability in a state where the former President is widely unpopular.
                                    “I believe I can win the race,” Giuliani told the Examiner. “I think I’m the right candidate, and this is the right time to help change New York State, and we’ve got a playbook that works.”
                                      “Outside of anybody named Trump, I think I have the best chance to win and take the state back, and I think there’s an opportunity in 2022 with a wounded Democratic candidate, whether it’s going to be Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo, whether it’s going to be a radical (attorney general), Letitia James, whether it’s going to be a no-name lieutenant governor, I think there’s a very, very real chance to win,” he said, according to the magazine.
                                            Asked if he expected Cuomo to seek reelection to a fourth term next year, Jay Jacobs, the state party chair and a close ally of the governor, demurred.
                                            “I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I think that he’s more focused on getting through his current troubles, then seeing where he’s going to go,” he said. “These investigations are going to be critical in all of that. It’s hard to tell. I’m sure that, given his druthers, he’d like to run for reelection.”

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                                            Politics

                                            Stephen Breyer worries about Supreme Court’s public standing in current political era

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                                            By Joan Biskupic, CNN legal analyst & Supreme Court biographer
                                            Updated 9:07 PM ET, Tue April 6, 2021

                                            (CNN) — Justice Stephen Breyer, who may be nearing the end of his Supreme Court tenure, expressed concern on Tuesday about the standing of the high court and the possible erosion of public confidence in its decisions.

                                            In an expansive, two-hour lecture at Harvard Law School, Breyer bemoaned the common practice — by journalists, senators and others — of referring to justices by the presidents who appointed them and of describing the nine by their conservative or liberal approach to the law.
                                            “These are more than straws in the wind,” the 82-year-old Breyer said. “They reinforce the thought, likely already present in the reader’s mind, that Supreme Court justices are primarily political officials or ‘junior league’ politicians themselves rather than jurists. The justices tend to believe that differences among judges mostly reflect not politics but jurisprudential differences. That is not what the public thinks.”
                                              Breyer also warned against proposals to expand the size of the Supreme Court from its current nine members. Public trust was “gradually built” over the centuries, he said, and any discussion of change should take account of today’s public acceptance of the court’s rulings, even those as controversial as the 2000 Bush v. Gore case that settled a presidential election.
                                                “The public now expects presidents to accept decisions of the court, including those that are politically controversial,” he said. “The court has become able to impose a significant check — a legal check — upon the Executive’s actions in cases where the Executive strongly believes it is right.”
                                                  Some of Breyer’s most compelling opinions, it should be noted, have been written in dissent. In 2007, for example, he objected to an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts rejecting school integration plans in Seattle and Louisville. Roberts said districts could not consider a student’s race when making school assignments to reduce racial isolation throughout the school district.
                                                  “This is a decision that the Court and the Nation will come to regret,” wrote Breyer, whose father, Irving Breyer, was a long-serving school board member in San Francisco. Breyer still wears the wristwatch his father received upon his retirement from the district. Breyer said the Roberts opinion threatened “the promise of” the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
                                                  Breyer said Tuesday that differences with his colleagues were based on their distinct views of the structure of the Constitution or how they interpreted statutes. He did not refer to instances in which his colleagues themselves have publicly questioned each other’s motives.
                                                    Breyer did allow that sometimes justices weigh public opinion or the future ramifications of a decision. And he acknowledged that the nine are products of their individual backgrounds and experiences.
                                                    Still, he said, “judicial philosophy is not a code word for ‘politics.'”

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