A batch of nominees for federal judgeships in California made it through their confirmation hearing today largely unscathed, possibly clearing a path for a dramatic increase in the number of Asian-Americans on the bench.
The nominees include one who would be the first Vietnamese American on a district court and two others who are second-generation Chinese Americans. Asian-Americans currently constitute less than 1 percent of the 876 judges on all federal courts, according to statistics compiled by Senate Democrats.
Their ethnicity was a point of celebration for the nominees, as they and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee told stories of parents who immigrated to the United States and worked their way to professional success.
Introducing Dolly Gee, a nominee for the Central District, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) described how Gee’s parents immigrated to California from southern China. Gee’s father was an aerospace engineer and her mother a garment worker. Gee’s mother, Boxer said, “never taught Dolly to sew because she did not want her daughter to have to stitch clothes for a living.”
Jacqueline Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam and who would also sit in the Central District, worked in her parents’ doughnut shops when she was in high school, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
Edward Chen, who would be the first Asian-American judge in California’s Northern District, was part of the legal team that helped overturn the conviction of Fred Korematsu in the early 1980s. (Korematsu, the petitioner in the much-excoriated Supreme Court decision in 1944 that upheld internment camps for Japanese Americans, was convicted in 1942 of disobeying a military order to go to such a camp.)
Asian-American legal groups praised the three nominations as significant progress in diversifying the federal judiciary. “Each nominee brings a unique personal life story that would inspire all Americans,” said a joint statement from the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and the Asian American Justice Center.
In an echo of the debate that preceded the confirmation of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic member of the U.S. Supreme Court, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) read aloud from a law review article that Chen once wrote about the impact of a judge’s personal background. Chen told the senator that he would decide cases based on evidence and the law, and Sessions did not press the point.
“These are able nominees who I believe have good integrity,” said Sessions, the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican.
The nominees also have varied professional backgrounds. Chen has been a magistrate judge in the Northern District since 2001 and previously spent 16 years as a staff lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. Gee, a partner at Schwartz, Steinsapir, Dohrmann & Sommers in Los Angeles, has been in private practice her entire career. Nguyen worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, rising to deputy chief of the general crimes section, before becoming a Los Angeles Superior Court judge.
A fourth nominee who appeared today, Richard Seeborg, would sit in the Northern District of California. Seeborg, who is white, received less attention from committee members. Like Chen, he has been a magistrate judge since 2001. He previously was a partner at Morrison & Foerster and an assistant U.S. attorney.