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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Surge of public defenders heading to federal bench drives wedge at Senate

Republicans on the Judiciary Committee held up a nominee's past work as a public defender to say she is unfit to join the Third Circuit.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Casting a shadow over President Joe Biden's historic Supreme Court nominee, tense discourse broke out at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday regarding the nomination of a former public defender to the Third Circuit.

Republicans at the hearing seized on Arianna Freeman's 12-year career as a representative for indigent clients, saying such a history would jeopardize the ability to serve as an impartial judge. In a year that has seen a historic number of former public defenders appointed to federal court positions, the argument has become a common one in the GOP stratagem to contest the sprint of Biden's judicial nominations.

Freeman would be the first Black woman and first woman of color to serve on the Philadelphia-based federal appeals court. She has worked at the Federal Community Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania since 2009.

At the first stop of her confirmation process, Republican Senator Josh Hawley on Wednesday brought up Freeman's representation of convicted murderer Terrance Williams, a man who won a Supreme Court appeal in 2016 based on the failure of a state supreme court justice to recuse himself from proceedings on Williams' death sentence despite working as a district attorney for the office that prosecuted Williams.

Hawley described Williams' crimes in detail and claimed that Freeman's arguments during her time as a court-appointed attorney for Williams were indicative of her overall view of the criminal justice system, accusing Freeman of being opposed to capitol punishment.

"You stand by the argument you made that this individual should not be executed?” Hawley said. "I take it from that that you're opposed to the death penalty as a matter of principle."

Freeman asserted that she had been appointed to Williams' legal team and that she had a constitutional duty to represent him, going on to note that the Supreme Court was one of several courts to determine that a due-process violation had occurred in Williams' case.

"I represent individuals when I am directed to do so by the court, and I fulfilled my duty to zealously advocate," Freeman said, emphasizing that representation for indigent clients regardless of their criminal charges is a constitutional right.

Senator Ted Cruz accused Freeman of "siding with capital murderers and ignoring the law."

"This is a three-prong strategy from the Democrats to abolish the police, putting prosecutors in place who don't follow the law, putting judges in place who don't follow the law — and there's a reason we see crime rates and murder rates and carjacking rates skyrocketing across this country. Because the job of a judge is to follow the law not to be a zealot pursuing a political agenda," the Texas Republican said.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker pushed back against the GOP narrative, calling Freeman's background as a public defender a testament to her character.

"It takes a special kind of person to dedicate themselves to those who have perhaps committed awful crimes, dedicate themselves to the ideal to everyone — even the poor, even the abused, even the addicted, even those who have done wretched things — deserve representation," the Democratic Booker said.

In addition to Freeman, the committee considered the nomination to the Sixth Circuit of Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis, who is currently on the Eastern District of Michigan bench. Davis would be the second Black woman to join the appeals court.

Robert Steven Huie, a nominee to the Southern District of California; Jennifer Rearden, a nominee to the Southern District of New York; and Evelyn Padin, a nominee for the District of New Jersey, also testified before the committee Wednesday.

Republicans' fiery criticisms of Freeman for her role as a public defender, a background rarely seen on the federal bench, come as Ketanji Brown Jackson, Biden's nominee for the Supreme Court, meets with lawmakers on the Hill and sits poised to testify before the committee in the coming weeks.

Jackson would be the first Black woman and first former federal public defender to sit on the nation's highest court, with Wednesday's meeting providing potential insight into the tactics Republicans could use to question her resume. Her first nomination hearing is scheduled for March 21, with questioning beginning March 22.

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