But Klobuchar told the committee on Thursday that Smith had not requested to return a blue slip and instead met with Stras last week in anticipation of a vote on his nomination before the full Senate. Klobuchar voted for Stras, saying the judge's record shows he will be fair and even-handed on the bench. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., was the only other Democrat to join Klobuchar in supporting Stras' nomination.
"I want to be clear that he would not be my first choice for this job, there were others that I had worked with over the years and knew that I would have suggested for this job," Klobuchar said Thursday. "But morally, when I look at this and have to answer the question is he qualified, could he serve on the 8th Circuit, I have to say yes. I do not see the kind of hot button political controversial writings or work that I see in many of these nominees that I have opposed."
In addition to the three circuit court nominees, the committee also approved four new nominees for federal district courts.
Among the most controversial of those nominees was Matthew Kacsmaryk, who is up for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas and currently serves as deputy general counsel at the First Liberty Institute, a legal group that takes religious liberty cases.
While with the group, Kacsmaryk filed a friend of the court brief in Obergefell v. Hodges that warned the high court that finding a constitutional right to same-sex marriage could be a "road to potential tyranny." Kacsmaryk told the committee at his nomination hearing in December he wrote the brief as a reminder to the justices to consider the rights of the religious groups he represented.
"We noted to the court the importance of protecting religious dissenters in the event that the court recognizes a constitutional right to same-sex marriage," Kacsmaryk said at his hearing.
Kacsmaryk also represented a couple who ran an Oregon bakery and refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding and, like Duncan, worked on several cases challenging the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate.
Senators expressed concerns about Kacsmaryk's record in the courtroom, saying it would be difficult for LGBT litigants to believe they had a fair shot before him as a judge.
"Very hard for me to believe that he is capable of leaving his advocacy in the robeing room and not taking it onto the bench," Whitehouse said Thursday.
Despite the concerns of Democrats, all Republicans voted for Kacsmaryk, sending him to the full Senate on an 11-10 vote.
The committee also approved the nomination of Charles Goodwin, who was rated not qualified by the American Bar Association to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma
While a minority of the ABA's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary found Goodwin qualified, the majority determined otherwise. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said at Goodwin's nomination hearing in December that the ABA found Goodwin, who currently works as a magistrate judge in the same court to which he is nominated, often does not arrive at the courthouse until "mid-afternoon."
Goodwin explained that he often works from home on mornings when he does not have any court hearings.
"On days that I just do work on the writing, I find it extremely beneficial to work from home, to be able to focus in solitude on the writing," Goodwin said at his hearing.
Republicans have called into question the ABA's ratings of judicial nominees after the group rated Steven Grasz, Trump's nominee to the 8th Circuit, not qualified. All 11 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee voted for Goodwin and were joined by four Democrats in a 15-6 vote approving his nomination.
The committee also approved Eli Richardson, whom Trump nominated to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, and Stan Baker, who is up for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia.
The most controversial of the nominees the committee approved for the second time on Thursday was Thomas Farr, a nominee for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina who once defended changes to the state's voting laws that the Fourth Circuit found targeted African American voters with "almost surgical precision."
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus attended the Judiciary Committee's meeting on Thursday, as the group has vocally opposed Farr's nomination. The group sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee noting that during the Obama administration Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., blocked two black women from taking the seat Farr will likely fill.
"It is no exaggeration to say that had the White House deliberately sought to identify an attorney in North Carolina with a more hostile record on African American voting rights and workers' rights than Thomas Farr, it could hardly have done so," the Congressional Black Caucus letter read.
Harris and Booker, who were not on the committee when Farr had his nomination hearing, asked Grassley on Thursday to hold a new nomination hearing for Farr so they could ask him additional questions. The new members of the committee specifically wanted to press Farr on his involvement in postcards former Republican Sen. Jesse Helms sent to black voters in 1990 threatening them with false information about punishments for voter fraud.
Farr told the Judiciary Committee he did not play a role in creating the cards, but a former Justice Department official told Indy Week in November that Farr had knowledge of the mailings before they went out. Farr denied the allegations in a letter to Booker in December, but Booker nevertheless asked for a chance to question the nominee in person.
Grassley denied the senators' request, saying a second nomination hearing would be highly unusual.
"There have been numerous opportunities for all committee members to question Mr. Farr, and I'm sorry to say that I disagree with the need for a second hearing because I think he has been candid and truthful," Grassley said Thursday.
Trump's choice to lead the Justice Department's Criminal Division also received strong opposition from Democrats ahead of his second vote in the committee, mainly because of his work representing a Russian bank with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Brian Benczkowski told the Judiciary Committee that his partner at the firm Kirkland and Ellis asked him to help represent Alfa Bank after Benczkowski returned from working on Trump's Justice Department landing team.
Alfa Bank's leaders are close with Putin and there have been allegations that the bank had connections to the Trump campaign following reports of communications between a Trump Organization server and the bank.
Cyber experts have said the communications appear to have been innocent and the New York Times reported the FBI looked into the Trump server's communications with the bank and found they were not used for clandestine purposes.
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