With news coverage focused on President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union Tuesday, the fireworks at D.C. circuit nominee Neomi Rao’s Senate confirmation hearing flew way under the radar.
This is one of President Trump’s most important judicial vacancies to fill, right behind those on the Supreme Court. This is because the D.C. Circuit handles a high-profile caseload, and the court is something of an incubator for future “supremes.” Brett Kavanaugh was a judge on the D.C. Circuit before his nomination to SCOTUS.
Rao, a professor at George Mason University’s Scalia Law School and White House deregulation chief, is currently Trump’s third most important judicial nominee behind his two Supreme Court appointments, and Democratic opposition to the nominee definitely marked the seat’s significance.
First, Sen. Cory “Spartacus” Booker, D-N.J., lived up to his reputation as a grandstander in committee hearings with an attempted “gotcha” question that backfired pretty hard. In short, Booker asked if Rao had ever had any gay or transsexual law clerks. She responded that since she’s worked as a law professor instead of a judge, she hasn’t ever had any law clerks.
Sen. Cory Booker: "Have you ever had an LGBTQ law clerk?"
Neomi Rao: "I've not been a judge, so I don't have any law clerks."pic.twitter.com/vXTrClEKGF
— Liz Wheeler (@Liz_Wheeler) February 5, 2019
Democrats have also tried a tactic to sink Rao similar to one they used against another judicial nominee: Weaponizing a nominee’s college writings.
You may remember when Republican Sens. Tim Scott, S.C., and Marco Rubio, Fla., sided with Senate Democrats to kill Ryan Bounds’ nomination to the Ninth Circuit over some things he wrote about political correctness as an undergraduate.
Now, the attacks are leveled at Rao’s writings about issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation while an undergraduate at Yale University.
Only time will tell if anyone on the right side of the aisle will take the bait this time around. But in the meantime, those writings spurred this line of questioning from Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill:
Neomi Rao, President Trump’s nominee to serve on the D.C. Circuit, gave testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee today. I asked her to explain her past writings where she discussed “myths of racial and gender oppression.” pic.twitter.com/L5OUoEfqUw
— Senator Dick Durbin (@SenatorDurbin) February 5, 2019
Yes, you’re watching Durbin, a white male, lecture an Indian-American woman on issues of sex and gender. Just let that sink in for a couple of moments.
Furthermore, following an exchange with Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, in which Rao said that she regretted some of the things she wrote about date rape at Yale a quarter-century ago, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif, attempted to corner the nominee on the issue.
Harris grilled Rao for suggesting that women take “commonsense” steps to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault, such as not drinking to excess, and asked if victims should be blamed for what happens if they don’t take those steps. Rao responded in the negative but emphasized the “significance” of taking those steps “of trying to avoid becoming the victim of any crime.”
Harris later called those answers “deeply troubling.”
Here's the bottom line: survivors of sexual assault should not be blamed for the trauma they've experienced. Neomi Rao's prior writings about sexual assault are completely unacceptable and her responses to my questions today were deeply troubling. pic.twitter.com/jlOuhHWtQx
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) February 5, 2019
So Harris says that it’s “deeply troubling” to not hold victims responsible for the crimes committed against them but to simultaneously believe that people should take steps to avoid becoming victims of crimes.
These tactics, naturally, drew criticism from conservative figures and groups.
A statement from Concerned Women for America CEO Penny Nancy accused “[e]xtreme liberals in the U.S. Senate” of trying to “bully Professor Rao, despite her sterling credentials.”
A tweet from the Judicial Crisis Network, which recently took out a large ad campaign in support of Trump’s judicial nominees, said that it’s “obvious” that Senate Democrats tried to sink the nominee with “smear tactics.”
It’s obvious, Senate Democrats are implementing their bullying and smear tactics against Neomi Rao… She is a superbly-qualified nominee who deserves bipartisan support. #SupportRao https://t.co/cGAtTFZHku
— Judicial Network (@judicialnetwork) February 5, 2019
At this writing, the committee has not yet scheduled a vote on Rao’s nomination.