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One nominee left in lurch at Senate committee vote on judicial picks

Republicans on the panel are stymying the appointment to the 11th Circuit of an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate Judiciary Committee moved four judicial nominees one step closer to confirmation on Thursday, but tied over an 11th Circuit contender whose legal work for the Southern Poverty Law Center has inflamed Republicans.

The tie vote does not necessarily doom Nancy Abudu's chances of confirmation, but it does draw out the process, requiring an extra vote in the Senate to get her confirmed. If confirmed, Abudu is poised to become the first Black woman and first person of color from Georgia to serve as an 11th Circuit judge.

She and two of the other prospective judge who did make it through the committee this morning were framed as extremists during the vote by the panel's ranking Republican. Referring to Abudu, Nusrat Jahan Choudhury and Natasha Merle, Senator Chuck Grassley called them the "most activist judicial nominees that we've seen."

Grassley did vote to advance the nomination of Judge J. Michelle Childs for an opening on the D.C. Circuit. A former Supreme Court hopeful, Childs exited the committee with a vote of 17-5, a rare feat on the highly partisan panel.

"I am going to support Judge Childs. She said she doesn't believe in a living Constitution, she's worked on administrative law at both the state and federal levels," Grassley said Thursday. "I think she's as good of a pick as we can expect for this very important D.C. Circuit that we consider the second most important appeals court in our system of justice."

Earlier this year, Childs was on the shortlist of Supreme Court candidates to replace soon-retiring Justice Stephen Breyer and was a favorite of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. President Joe Biden instead nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson, who has since been confirmed to the high court.

U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs stands in the federal courthouse where she hears cases on Feb. 18, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

Back in April at Abudu's confirmation hearing, the attorney defended her work as the deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy nonprofit that focuses on civil rights litigation.

“My commitment to equal justice under law — to racial justice, to ensuring that all people are able to exercise their constitutionally fundamental rights — has been the focus of my work with the Southern Poverty Law Center, and I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done in that capacity,” Abudu said.

But GOP lawmakers on the panel have lambasted the group over its hate-group categorization of conservative organizations such as the Alliance for Defending Freedom, which advocated for criminalizing sexual acts by LGBTQ people and fought against anti-discrimination policies for gay couples and transgender people.

“There’ve been repeated examples of the center targeting mainstream conservative groups,” Grassley said during the April hearing.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas got heated at the time when he noted that the Southern Poverty Law Center has called several Republican lawmakers, including Cruz, extremist.

“How could anyone who is not on the radical left, how could someone who is pro-life, how could someone who’s conservative, how can someone who’s religious, have any degree of confidence if they were to appear at a court with you as a judge? You’ve spent a lifetime working for groups that smear half this country as white supremacists and Klansmen,” Cruz said.

Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat who chairs the committee, noted contrasted the GOP's rhetoric about Abudud with its backing of judges nominated by former President Donald Trump despite their histories as legal advocates and their affiliations with political organizations.

"I find it hard to believe that Republican judicial nominees can set aside their roles as advocates but Democrats cannot," Durbin said.

Despite opposition from Republicans on the panel, three other nominees were favorably reported out of the committee.

Eastern District of New York nominee Choudhury advanced out of the committee with a 12-10 vote of support. Currently the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, Choudhury would break multiple barriers if confirmed to the bench, including becoming the first Muslim woman to serve as a federal judge.

Merle, the current deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has also been tapped for an Eastern District of New York opening. The advancement of her nomination got a 12-10 vote from the panel.

Ana Isabel De Alba, currently a judge on the Superior Court of Fresno County in California, received a favorable 12-10 vote for her confirmation to move forward. She would be the first Latina to ever serve on the Eastern District of California if she’s confirmed by the Senate.

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