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Senate Panel Narrowly Approves Two to Federal Bench

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday narrowly approved the nominations of two state court judges President Donald Trump has nominated to serve on federal courts in Oklahoma and Florida.

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday narrowly approved the nominations of two state court judges President Donald Trump has nominated to serve on federal courts in Oklahoma and Florida.

The most controversial judge the committee approved Thursday was Justice Patrick Wyrick, who sits on the Oklahoma Supreme Court and is nominated to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma.

Committee Democrats unsuccessfully petitioned Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the committee, to delay the vote on Wyrick because the American Bar Association has not yet delivered its rating on his qualifications.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, said Wyrick has a relatively short history of public statements and writings, giving little for committee staff to evaluate. She said the ABA's extensive review might be able to reveal more about his history and allow senators to make a more informed decision.

"This is a limited record, but it's all that we have to go on and I would hope that we could wait to see what the ABA decides," Feinstein said Thursday.

Grassley denied their request, saying he would not let an outside group delay the committee's work.

"In my opinion the ABA has had plenty of time to perform its evaluation and I've said so many times that outside groups can't dictate the committee's schedule," Grassley said. "I'm skeptical of the usefulness of the ABA."

Wyrick served as Oklahoma's solicitor general from 2011 to 2017 before being appointed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2017.

Wyrick drew criticism from Democrats for positions he took while working as the state's solicitor general and also for his involvement in a scandal in which then-Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt took a letter from an Oklahoma energy company, put it on state letterhead and sent it to the EPA with limited changes.

Wyrick said he did not remember receiving the email from the energy company, but that his "usual practice" for receiving letters from people outside of government was to forward it to "someone in the Office of the Attorney General to evaluate and determine whether it warranted the office's attention."

A member of the conservative Federalist Society, Wyrick also faced criticism for the grilling he received from Justice Sonia Sotomayor when he argued a death penalty appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015. Wyrick's brief selectively quoted an FDA-approved label on the drug Oklahoma used in executions and Sotomayor told Wyrick during oral arguments she would not believe anything he said until she saw the context "with [her] own eyes."

Wyrick explained in written responses to questions submitted after his nomination hearing that his office sent the court a letter correcting the mistaken citation as soon as the attorneys on the case discovered it. He also told Feinstein such mistakes are relatively common in court, but that because they only caught the error after the time for filing  briefs had ended, the state had to send a letter to the justices.

"In every brief I've worked on, I've worked diligently to ensure that all information provided is correct," Wyrick wrote. "As a judge, I read a lot of briefs and I can say that inadvertent mis-cites of the sort in Glossip are not uncommon in litigation and the parties typically just address such issues in the subsequent briefs to the court."

Wyrick, who was listed on Trump's short list of potential Supreme Court nominees, also filed briefs in a number of high-profile legal disputes during the Obama administration, including state challenges to the federal health care law and its contraceptive mandate. Like other Trump nominees who have worked as solicitors general for red states, Democrats raised concerns about his work arguing these positions in court.

The committee approved his nomination 11-10 Thursday, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats opposed.

In addition, the committee approved the nomination of Judge Allen Winsor, who sits on the Florida First District Court of Appeal and is nominated to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

Though Wyrick drew most of the attention from lawmakers when the two nominees appeared before the committee in May, Winsor received opposition from Democrats for his time representing Florida as the state's solicitor general and in private practice.

While working as the state's solicitor general, Winsor helped defend Florida's ban on same-sex marriage and Florida Atlantic University's decision not to provide in-state tuition to a same-sex couple who married in Massachusetts but lived in Florida. He also defended a Florida law that imposed a waiting period on women who were seeking an abortion and while in private practice represented the state in a challenge to its voter registration law.

Winsor noted his office dropped the defense of Florida's same-sex marriage ban after the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which found a constitutional right to marriage that applies to same-sex couples. A member of the Federalist Society, Winsor explained in response to written questions submitted after his nomination hearing that his job as the state's solicitor general was to defend Florida's laws.

He further told Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., that his role changed when he became a state court judge and promised to remain unbiased and independent on the bench.

"I left the role of an attorney and became a state judge more than two years ago," Winsor wrote in response to written questions submitted after his hearing. "I have approached each case without regard as to whether or not a litigant is the 'little guy.' I have always ruled without regard to any party's status. My decisions include those both for and against the state, both for and against indigent defendants, both for and against corporations. If confirmed as a federal judge, I would continue to decide cases without regard to any party's status."

Winsor cleared the committee 11-10 and now he and Wyrick await a vote before the full Senate.

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