WASHINGTON (CN) – President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Eighth Circuit downplayed past comments on immigration and his limited trial experience while testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
Jonathan Kobes, who currently serves as general counsel to Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., spent two years as a federal prosecutor in South Dakota before joining the Sioux Falls firm Murphy Goldammer & Prendergast in 2005. Kobes said he left his job as a prosecutor because the U.S. attorney at the time resigned and asked Kobes to come with him to private practice.
Kobes told Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., he has worked on a total of six trials as an attorney, including four as a federal prosecutor.
But the nominee said his relatively limited experience in the courtroom does not mean his is unprepared for a job as a federal appellate judge. He told senators on Wednesday his chance to work in all three branches of government, as well as in private practice and as in-house counsel, has given him a unique perspective.
“Senator, I’ve been practicing law for approximately 18 years now, and I’ve been asking myself over the course of this process, would I be better qualified had I stayed in private practice, for example, for 18 years, or had I stayed at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for 18 years?” Kobes told Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C Wednesday. “And I think obviously I would have tried more cases, I would have handled more depositions, but I also would have missed out on a lot of what my career has afforded me.”
When pressed about his judicial philosophy by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Kobes said he would look to the text “first and foremost” when evaluating a federal statute, saying it can be difficult to determine exactly what Congress as a whole intended to do when it passed a law.
In addition to questions about his experience, Kobes faced scrutiny over comments he made to a Dutch journalist in 2017 about immigration in which he said Republicans sometimes oppose immigration “because it waters down the culture.”
Kobes also described demographic changes in Sioux Center, Iowa and said there are “social issues” associated with these changes. He allowed that some of the opposition to immigration is “unfair” and based on “fear,” but said some criticisms are “legitimate.”
Kobes explained he offered the comments as an explanation of the political climate surrounding the immigration debate in the United States and that they do not reflect his personal views on immigration.
He added that after listening to the audio of his interview, he also believes the journalist misquoted him.
“I’d like to think some of that was based on the language, but quite frankly, liberties were taken with some of my comments that are hard to explain other than irresponsible journalism,” Kobes said Wednesday. “Many of the direct quotes simply were not direct quotes and many of the ideas and the concepts presented were not mine.”
The paper, called the Reformatorisch Dagblad, is tied to the Reformed Political Party, a conservative, religious Dutch political party whose goal is “to shape society in such a way that this reflects God’s intentions with mankind,” according to an English translation of its website.
He added on Wednesday that while there are “legitimate” discussions to be had about the tradeoffs of immigration, concerns about “watering down the culture” are not valid.
After leaving private practice in 2008, Kobes worked as senior regulatory counsel at agricultural company DuPont Pioneer and later as director of corporate compliance for Raven Industries. A former member of the conservative Federalist Society, Kobes also worked as an attorney for the CIA from 2002 to 2003.
Five nominees to federal district courts also appeared before the committee on Wednesday, including three to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
All three of the Illinois nominees, Martha Pacold, Steven Seeger and U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Rowland, came with the endorsements of both of Illinois’ Democratic senators.
Ken Bell, who is up for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, faced the most questions from senators during the district court portion of the hearing, with most focusing on a pro-life op-ed he wrote in which he decried the “indefensibility of the abortion rights position.”
When pressed about the piece at the hearing by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Bell said he did not mean to mock anybody by writing the editorial, adding that he could not comment on his personal opinions about abortion because he would be likely to hear a challenge touching on the issue if confirmed.
Bell also wrote an opinion piece in the Charlotte Observer in 2016 arguing then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton should have been prosecuted for her use of a private email server while working as secretary of state.
Bell worked as a federal prosecutor in North Carolina for nearly two decades and made an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1990. He moved to private practice in 2003 and now is a partner at the Charlotte firm McGuire Woods.
Carl Nichols, who is up for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, called Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas one of his “close friends and mentors” at the hearing on Wednesday.
Nichols currently works as a partner at the Washington D.C. firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, having spent 2005 to 2009 at the Justice Department.