WASHINGTON (CN) - President Donald Trump's nominee to the Ninth Circuit apologized Wednesday for controversial articles he wrote while an undergraduate at Cornell University, saying he was naive when he penned pieces on sexual misconduct, affirmative action and other issues.
"When you're young, your views aren't nuanced, you don't understand the complexity of the world," Ninth Circuit nominee Kenneth Lee told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "A lot of times you just base it on your narrow personal experience and as you get older you realize the world is bigger, it's richer, it's more complex than based on your narrow experiences you had as a kid and that's one of the things I've learned as I've gotten older.”
California's two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, raised concerns about the writings, which they said Lee withheld from both the Senate Judiciary Committee and a commission that vets potential judicial nominees from the state.
Lee told senators he "made a good faith effort" to provide all the writings he could find, combing through public search engines, his law firm's library and even his mother's garage to find everything he could. He said some of the documents Feinstein and Harris accused him of withholding were not publicly available and apologized for not being able to provide them sooner.
But beyond the issues with Lee providing the documents, the senators said the content of the articles raise questions about his views on a range of topics.
"We can ask Mr. Lee about these writings as they demonstrate very strong personal views on issues including immigration, affirmative action and voting rights," Feinstein said at Wednesday’s hearing.
Lee explained that an article he wrote skeptical of affirmative action policies was from the perspective of the broader Asian-American community, which at the time felt at a "grassroots level" that its voice was not being heard. An immigrant from South Korea, Lee said there was a great deal of concern at the time that affirmative action programs were being used against Asian-American applicants.
"There was a lot of push of let's write about it, let's hold rallies, let's write to our elected officials," Lee said.
In another article, Lee defended a Cornell professor who was accused by four female students of sexual misconduct. Lee questioned their reasons for not making their accusations sooner and suggested they came forward as a result of a course at the university that "propagated the pernicious view that all women are victims of the inexorable sexism inherent in our patriarchal society."
Lee told Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., that at the time he had a "major blind spot" on the issue of sexual misconduct in the workplace and was attempting to defend a professor he had admired and respected. He said his views have changed significantly as he has grown up, especially after he got married and had children.
Senator Joni Ernst, who publicly said earlier this year that she was sexually assaulted while in college, praised Lee's answers explaining his college writings.
"Thank you for that, because I think it is important that we understand how our life does change through those years and how we can start as a young, enthusiastic, maybe in your words naive youngster, young teenager, but then through the course of your work experiences, your time involved with other types of activities, it has opened your eyes," Ernst, R-Iowa, said at the hearing. "We know that survivors do need to come forward and they need to be heard, but those life experiences change the way we view different circumstances."
Lee currently works as a partner at the Los Angeles firm Jenner & Block, a position he took in 2009 after leaving his job as associate counsel and special assistant to President George W. Bush.
Lee appeared before the committee alongside fellow Ninth Circuit nominee Daniel Collins, who faced fewer questions from senators during the two-hour hearing.
Like Lee, Collins does not have the support of either California senator, with Feinstein saying Wednesday the judicial vetting commission raised questions about Collins' temperament. The American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary has rated both Lee and Collins as well qualified.
A partner at the Los Angeles firm Munger, Tolles & Olson since 2003, Collins faced questions from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., about his past work representing fossil fuel companies in court.
"Posit a fossil fuel industry party with a case before you, and explain to me how the adversary of that fossil fuel industry party could conceive they could get a fair hearing from you and specifically what your recusal standard would be when fossil fuel industry corporations come before you and fossil fuel industry arguments are made to you," Whitehouse said.
Collins would not commit to automatically recusing himself in every challenge involving a fossil fuel company, but said he would consult recusal standards and requirements before making a decision.
Collins first joined his current firm in 1996 but left in 2001 to take a job as associate deputy attorney general in the Justice Department.
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