WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge from New York nominated to a seat on the Second Circuit touted his experience on the bench and commitment to precedent in a smooth nomination hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
Judge Richard Sullivan, who has served on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York since 2007, received few tough questions at Wednesday’s hearing and spent less than an hour before lawmakers.
Sullivan said his decade of experience on the federal bench has prepared him for a job on an appellate court. He spoke highly of the job of a judge and promised senators he would faithfully follow precedent if confirmed.
“I would say, senator, that I am not a blank slate on this,” Sullivan said. “I’ve got a body of work over 11 years and I think I’ve certainly demonstrated my willingness to follow precedent. Not just a willingness, it’s a recognition that our system only works when lower courts follow the precedents of higher courts.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, asked Sullivan if he would recuse himself from death penalty cases, given comments he made in 2015 in which Sullivan said he opposed capital punishment. Sullivan said he wouldn’t “necessarily” recuse himself from such cases, but promised Hirono he would go through the recusal process for any case that touched on any of his other strongly held beliefs.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., later asked Sullivan why he commented on his opposition to the death penalty, but declined to answer Kennedy’s request that he name something that is constitutional that should be unconstitutional.
“You don’t think that a prosecutor, knowing you’ve declared the death penalty unconstitutional, would have second thoughts if you were a judge?” Kennedy asked.
Sullivan explained his comments on the death penalty reflected what his personal preference would be if he were in a policymaking role and clarified that he did not say the death penalty was unconstitutional.
Kennedy also asked Sullivan whether police could stop and question a man walking in a known high crime area while wearing a heavy coat in the middle of summer. Sullivan explained the process by which he would evaluate such a stop and said he was skeptical it would stand up to scrutiny.
“I think I would probably want more in that situation,” Sullivan said.
Before becoming a judge, Sullivan worked as a federal prosecutor in New York City from 1994 to 2005, leading the office’s narcotics unit and later its Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. He later spent time as general counsel of Marsh & McLennan Companies, taking the same job with Marsh Inc. in 2006.
The second panel of the day included six nominees to federal district courts in New York, which proved frustrating to senators with limited time to ask questions.
Three of the nominees, Diane Gujarati, Eric Komitee and Rachel Kovner, are up for seats on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
Gujarati has served as a federal prosecutor in New York since 1999, becoming the deputy chief of the office’s criminal division in 2012. She was nominated to the court by President Barack Obama in 2016, but a Republican blockade against Obama judicial nominees meant she did not receive a hearing during her first pass through the Senate.
A former clerk for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, Kovner has worked in the Office of the Solicitor General since 2013 and has argued 11 cases before the Supreme Court.
Two of the other nominees, Lewis Liman and Mary Kay Vyskocil, are up for spots on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, while the final nominee, John Sinatra Jr., is nominated to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York.
Vyskocil became a U.S. bankruptcy judge in 2016 after spending the previous three decades at the New York firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett. While at the firm, Vyskocil represented Swiss Reinsurance in disputes over insurance coverage after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Kennedy posed a series of questions to each nominee, beginning with whether retribution was a legitimate purpose of sentencing. Kennedy later delved into the nominees’ feelings on constitutional interpretation, asking whether a judge should take into account the intent of the founders when evaluating a constitutional principle.
Whenever Kennedy sensed a nominee was attempting to evade his question, he cut them off and moved to the next person on the panel. Kennedy expressed significant frustration with the nominees’ responses, saying he was “very disappointed” they did not more directly answer his questions.
“This has gone way over the top,” Kennedy said. “These are not difficult questions, you’re extraordinarily well-educated, able attorneys and I don’t understand why we can’t get straight answers. And it’s going affect my vote.”