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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
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GOP works to trip judicial nominees on road to confirmation with focus on activist pasts

Five nominees to U.S. district courts and one nominee to a U.S. court of appeals were put under the microscope about their ability to judge impartially.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Mounting pushback in the face of what has been the fastest pacing of judicial nominee announcements and confirmations in U.S. history, Republican senators confronted a handful of nominees to the federal bench on Wednesday about political stances or views they aired early in their careers.

The hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee came this morning as President Joe Biden announced 10 new judicial nominees, bringing his total so far to 62, already outpacing the record-setting court-packing of the last administration. Former President Donald Trump put forward the least-diverse crop of federal judges since the Reagan years — a trend that the Biden administration is also working to undo.

Before they can be put to a vote by the full Senate and join the 28 Biden judges confirmed so far, however, the nominees must pass through committee. Among the six who appeared before the panel Wednesday, Ninth Circuit nominee Gabriel Sanchez faced questioning by Republican Senator Ted Cruz about his involvement with California Proposition 57 while serving in state government as deputy legal affairs secretary to Governor Edmund Brown. 

Prop 57, which passed in 2016, allowed parole consideration for nonviolent felons, but Cruz argued that the ballot measure put "violent criminals" back on the streets. Sanchez, who has been an associate justice on the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, since 2018 was undaunted.

“My intent was to serve the governor's policies and goals," Sanchez said of his work with Proposition 57. “When I took the role of a judge on the appellate court, I left all that behind," he added.

Sanchez started out his career in private practice and served pro bono in Bautista v. State of California, a case that helped provide heat illness protections for farm workers in California and earned Sanchez an ACLU of Southern California Social Justice award. At his current court, he is the first Latino associate justice on the bench.

Like his colleague from Texas, Louisiana Senator John Kennedy worked to place a magnifying glass on Sanchez's personal beliefs, asking of the associate justice: “When in your opinion, does life begin?” and “Biologically, how many sexes are there?"

Sanchez declined to comment, noting that if he were to become a circuit judge, these questions may one day be relevant to cases before him.

“Whatever my personal views on those areas, I do set them to one side," Sanchez said. “[In cases,] I would follow Supreme Court precedent."

A similar proclamation came from Jinsook Ohta, whom Biden nominated to the Southern District of California.

Citing her more recent role as a judge on the San Diego Superior Court bench, Ohta declined to comment Wednesday on whether she stands behind the statement by the Lawyers Club of San Diego that criticized the Supreme Court's ruling last year in Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, which upheld Trump administration regulations exempting employers with a religious or moral objection from the contraception mandate of the federal health care law.

The San Diego Lawyers Club, an organization on whose board Ohta served until she became a judge, referred to the ruling as a "devastating blow to women's reproductive justice." Ohta on Wednesday acknowledged only that she had voted in favor of issuing the statement, which Senator Cruz said "blasted" the Supreme Court.

"Any previous advocacy statements do not enter into my courtroom; that would be inappropriate," Ohta testified.

In addition to Cruz, Ohta faced questioning about the statement by Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn and Missouri Senator Josh Hawley.

Blackburn was also critical of David Herrera Urias, Latino nominee whose confirmation to the District Court of New Mexico would, as Democratic New Mexico Senator Ben Ray Lujan put it, "ensure the judiciary looks like our state."

Unpalatable to Blackburn, however, was the nominee's affiliation with the ACLU of New Mexico's Legal Panel — an organization that she accused of taking "radical positions."

Urias demurred when Blackburn questioned whether he adheres to the group's politics.

"Personal views should never have a place in looking at the cases that are before a judge," Urias responded.

Three of the district court nominees who appeared Wednesday for questioning managed to evade pressure by the committee. They were Linda Lopez and Katherine Marie Menendez, both U.S. magistrates who have been tapped for the Southern District of California and the District of Minnesota, respectively, as well as Samantha Elliott, a private attorney nominated to the District of New Hampshire. All three women saw a breadth of bipartisan support from the senators in their home states.

The political tension between senators over the nominees was also marked by recent comments from Committee Chair Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, warning Republicans that he would consider getting rid of the "blue-slip process," a means of allowing senators first say regarding nominees from their home states, for district court nominees if Republicans refuse nominees without a legitimate reason.

Republican Ranking Member Chuck Grassley balked at the threat, however, telling the committee: it "would be a terrible mistake" to question the motives of fellow senators.

Durbin responded that he hopes senators can be united on judicial nominees and referred to the removal of the blue slip as “a challenge I hope I never have to face."

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Categories / Courts, Government, National, Politics

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