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Four judicial nominees make their way out of committee amid backlog deadline

As Democrats push for more confirmation votes in the coming days, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced four nominees to the federal bench.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced four of President Joe Biden's nominees to the federal bench Thursday as the Senate faces an impending deadline to address a record-setting number of nominees before the end of the year.

Despite harsh partisan tensions among committee members that have previously left some nominees in limbo, lawmakers on the panel voted to favorably recommend four federal court nominees for confirmation by the Senate.

Bridget Meehan Brennan and David Augustin Ruiz, both nominees for the Northern District of Ohio, received widespread support from both sides of the aisle.

Brennan is an acting U.S. attorney and Ruiz is a magistrate judge in Ohio, positions that drew praise from Republicans.

“Their records don’t raise the same concerns that they will be activist judges as other nominees,” said Ranking Member Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa.

GOP members, including Grassley, raised issue with the other two nominees, John H. Chun, a nominee for the Western District of Washington, and Charles Esque Fleming, a nominee for the Northern District of Ohio, claiming the nominees' histories as attorneys jeopardized their ability to act as impartial jurists.

Chun, who currently serves as a judge on the Washington Court of Appeals, faced heat during his nomination hearing last month over an amicus brief he co-signed back in 2003 when he was a private attorney.

The brief was in the case of Grutter v. Bollinger and it called on the Supreme Court to uphold affirmative action processes in college admissions, leading Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee to question Chun about race.

"Do you believe discrimination on the basis of race is permissible in college admissions?" the senator asked Chun back in November. "Is it OK to discriminate on the basis of race in hiring?”

Chun emphasized in the meeting that he had submitted the brief back when he was an advocate for the King County Bar Association and not when he was a judge, but Republican opposition to Chun underscores a repeated strategy by the GOP to question the ability of Biden's nominees who have a history as advocates to serve on the federal bench.

"I have serious concerns Judge Chun would be an activist on the federal bench. He wouldn’t put up a label on himself, on his judicial philosophy," Grassley says.

Committee Chairman Dick Durbin speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting to vote on nominees on Dec. 16, 2021. (Screenshot via Courthouse News)

Chun made it out of the committee by a vote of 12-10, however, leaving it up to the Senate to confirm his nomination. If confirmed, Chun would be the first Asian-American man on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

Fleming's nomination also made it out of committee by a margin of 13-9, as he faced skepticism from Republicans over his three-decade career as an assistant federal public defender.

“We’ve seen a number of public defenders nominated in this administration. I’ve spoken before about the need to determine whether a nominee is a Bill of Rights judge and not a criminal defense judge. From his record, I’m concerned Mr. Fleming falls into the second category,” Grassley said.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont and former prosecutor, pushed back against Grassley's assertion that former public defenders turned judges would be biased in favor of defense arguments.

"I certainly would not have anything against somebody being a federal judge who had been a public defender. Certainly as a prosecutor, I found them very very good people to be before," Leahy said.

The committee pushed all four nominations on to the Senate, which is facing mounting pressure as the end of the year quickly approaches — a deadline after which any nominations not acted on must be resubmitted by the White House unless there's a bipartisan agreement in the Senate to keep nominees who haven't been confirmed.

"I hope that in the spirit of bipartisanship, we can find an accommodation. I hope we can reach an agreement to keep nominees here in the Senate in the days to come and weeks to come," Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has threatened this week to keep the Senate in session over the weekend and up until the Christmas holiday to address the backlog of at least 150 nominees and pressure Republicans to let down their opposition to nominees.

“We’re going to continue working as much as we can for the rest of this year to confirm more judges,” Schumer said Wednesday.

This race to the end of the year come as Biden continues to set records with the pace of his judicial nominations, nominating 73 judges to the federal bench in his first year in office, one more than former President Donald Trump's first year, with an emphasis on balancing the demographic and professional diversity of the federal courts.

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