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Senate confirms nominees to federal bench in Ohio, more court votes on deck

Three more judicial candidates faced interviews Tuesday morning as the Senate confirmed the appointments of two former prosecutors and one former federal defender to the same court in Ohio.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate confirmed Bridget Meehan Brennan, Charles Esque Fleming and David Augustin Ruiz to vacancies at the Northern District of Ohio on Tuesday, bringing yet more mettle to President Joe Biden's massive slate of federal judicial nominees.

Brennan, who previously served as an acting U.S. attorney in the district, received bipartisan support with a 61–35 vote in the upper chamber Tuesday afternoon. She advanced through committee just over a month ago.

Before her time as an acting federal criminal prosecutor, Brennan headed the Northern District of Ohio's Criminal Division and its Civil Rights unit. Between 2000 and 2007, she worked as an associate at Baker Hostetler, a business, litigation and tax firm.

Fleming has served as an assistant federal public defender in Cleveland for more than 30 years, a line on his resume that drew ire from Republicans during the nomination process.

“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,” Republican Senator Chuck Grassley said during a previous meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Despite this criticism, the Senate voted 56–42 Tuesday afternoon to confirm Fleming's appointment. He will now be the second active Black judge on the District Court for the Northern District of Ohio and the only judge on that court with a history as a public defender — a professional background historically underrepresented on the federal bench.

Ruiz was confirmed Tuesday evening by a 62–35 vote in the Senate, becoming the first Hispanic district court judge to serve in the state of Ohio. A former assistant U.S. attorney and senior attorney with Calfee Halter & Griswold, Ruiz has been a magistrate judge in the Northern District of Ohio since 2016. 

Brennan's ascendance to the federal bench is the latest appointment in Biden's historic pace of judicial confirmations. Biden got 42 judges confirmed to the federal bench during his first year in office, a number not seen since President John F. Kennedy's administration.

While Biden's administration has been defined by a historic number of judicial confirmations, he has also nominated a slew of potential judges with an emphasis on expanding the professional and demographic diversity of the federal courts.

The Senate Judiciary Committee interviewed three of his nominees Tuesday morning: Kenly Kiya Kato and Sunshine Suzanne Sykes, who are both nominated to the Central District of California, and Jennifer Louise Rochon, a nominee to the Southern District of Ohio.

As a judge on the Superior Court of Riverside County in California, Sykes has presided over the appellate division and the court's civil litigation branch. She previously worked in the Office of County Council where she served as a juvenile dependency trial attorney and handled cases on behalf of government agencies throughout her career.

If confirmed, Sykes would be the first Native American to serve on an Article III court in California, and the first Article III judge anywhere in the country to be a member of the Navajo Nation.

Sykes largely evaded criticism from Republicans, who focused their attention on arguments Rochon and Kato had made on behalf of clients during their previous jobs as attorneys.

Rochon is general counsel for the Girl Scouts of the United States of America and previously worked as an associate, then partner at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel.

It was an amicus brief that Rochon filed during her time as a private attorney that drew attention from Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.

"You contributed to an amicus brief that supported an argument that mandatory detention of criminal aliens pending deportation proceedings is unconstitutional," Blackburn said.

Rochon had filed an amicus brief in the 2003 Supreme Court case of Demore v. Kim, in which she called it unconstitutional to automatically detain someone in immigration cases without an individualized hearing. The Supreme Court later ruled that such detention is permissible

"If confirmed, I would faithfully follow the Demore case that holds that there is no individualized hearing, and there is mandatory detention," Rochon assured Blackburn.

Kato, who serves as a U.S. magistrate judge for the Central District of California, drew the most attention and criticism from Republican members of the committee, who grilled her about her personal views on racial discrimination, affirmative action and immigration.

Prior to her time as a judge, Kato spent six years as a deputy federal public defender in Los Angeles before serving as an associate with Liner LLP and then a solo practitioner.

Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, took issue with a 2002 LA Weekly article in which Kato, a then federal public defender, argued against the felony prosecution of people who had used fraudulent security clearances at airports.

"I'm worried frankly, given your statements and record on this issue that something that's going to make up a huge portion of your docket is an issue in which you have said that you've expressed you express concern about whether these things are really crimes, whether they really should be prosecuted," Hawley said.

Kato said that when she had made those statements, she was serving as an advocate speaking on behalf of clients, noting that the U.S. Attorney's Office later agreed to dismiss several of the clients' cases and reduce some charges to misdemeanors as a result of her advocacy.

"In that role, my role was to do what I did for all of my clients, which was to put aside any personal opinions I might have about what they were accused of, to zealously advocate on their behalf and to ensure that their Sixth Amendment rights were fulfilled. And that was what I was doing," Kato said.

Kato also came under fire from Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Chuck Grassley over a law book review she co-authored during her time in law school in which she critiqued neoconservative ideologies within the Asian American community.

"You said that instead of attributing their success to progressives, neoconservatives have internalized the dialogue of oppressors," said Grassley. "I'm wondering if you still believe that neoconservatives are people who have internalized the dialogue of oppressors."

"We'll I don't doubt that that's what we wrote," Kato responded to the Iowa senator. "I have not looked back at it, and so at the moment I don't really have any recollection of what it was we were trying to convey by the language that you've just quoted.

"This was quite some time ago, over 25 years, I co-wrote it with a classmate of mine," she later added,

Cruz from Texas chimed in: "There is a pattern of this administration nominating political activists and radicals to the bench and they've done it for a year. And it's highly concerning, so I'm looking at what you wrote, your words."

If confirmed, Kato would be the third Asian American or Pacific Islander woman to serve on the court.

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