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Five approved but Central District of California nominee caught in committee split

The committee tied over whether to advance the nomination of Judge Kenly Kiya Kato to the federal bench after Republicans raised objections about her background as a public defender.

WASHINGTON (CN) The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the appointments Thursday of five federal district court nominees, with one nominee stuck in limbo over her record as a public defender.

Committee members were torn over whether to recommend Judge Kenly Kiya Kato, a nominee to the Central District of California, to the full Senate. Several Republicans on the panel in particular raised objection to Kato’s history as a public defender, a job title GOP members have lately deemed disqualifying for a prospective federal judge.

Kato currently serves as a U.S. magistrate judge in the district to which she has been nominated. Prior to that she spent time as a solo practitioner and six years as a deputy federal public defender in Los Angeles.

During Kato’s February nomination hearing, Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, argued that statements Kato had made in 2002 when she was representing people charged with using fraudulent security clearances at airports raised concerns about her ability to serve as a federal judge, particularly on immigration related cases.

"I'm worried, frankly, given your statements and record on this issue that something that's going to make up a huge portion of your docket is an issue in which you have said that you've expressed you express concern about whether these things are really crimes, whether they really should be prosecuted," Hawley said back in February.

Kato asserted during the hearing that it was her job to defend her clients as a court-appointed attorney, a refrain several Biden appointees with histories as public defenders have had to assert in response to Republican scrutiny.

"In that role, my role was to do what I did for all of my clients, which was to put aside any personal opinions I might have about what they were accused of, to zealously advocate on their behalf and to ensure that their Sixth Amendment rights were fulfilled. And that was what I was doing," Kato said.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the committee, voted against Kato's nomination, citing Kato's refusal to respond to questions about her stance on racial discrimination, particularly in the context of the admissions process at Harvard, her alma mater.

"I would hardly expect her to respond in that context because this is a case or controversy before the Supreme Court," Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, said in defense of Kato during the Thursday meeting.

The tie vote on Kato will now require an additional procedural vote in the Senate on her nomination before she can face confirmation.

Five other nominees to the federal bench made it out of committee, including Nina Morrison, a nominee to the Eastern District of New York who has served as senior litigation counsel for the Innocence Project in New York City for two decades.

During Morrison's confirmation hearing, Democrats praised her work exonerating innocent clients, while several GOP lawmakers accused Morrison of being soft on crime.

"I will confess, the whole of your record is deeply disturbing. Across this country, Americans are horrified at skyrocketing crime rates, skyrocketing homicide rates, skyrocketing burglary rates, skyrocketing carjacking rates — and all of those are the direct result of the policies you spent your entire lifetime advocating," Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas told Morrison during her Feb. 16 hearing.

Despite these criticisms, Morrison made it out of committee with a vote of 12-10 as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illionois, praised her record.

“Clearly she is someone who understands there are catastrophic consequences both for the wrongly accused and crime survivors when the wrong person is convicted," Durbin said Thursday.

Nominee to the Southern District of New York Jennifer Louise Rochon was approved 12-10 to move on to a full confirmation vote in the Senate.

Rochon currently serves as the general counsel for the Girl Scouts of the United States of America and previously worked as an associate and, later, a partner at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel.

Judge Sunshine Suzanne Sykes, Biden's nominee for the Central District of California, also made it out of committee on a 12-10 vote.

Currently a judge on the Superior Court of Riverside County in California, Sykes would be the first Native American to serve on an Article III court in California and the first Article III judge in the country to be a member of the Navajo Nation if she's confirmed by the Senate.

Judge Sherilyn Peace Garnett, who currently serves on the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, favorably passed through the committee by the widest margin, a vote of 17-5. Garnett is nominated for the Central District of California.

Judge Trina Thompson, a judge on the Alameda County Superior Court, will also move on for confirmation by the Senate for a spot on the federal bench in the Northern District of California. Thompson was approved by the committee by a 12-10 vote.

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