The Senate Judiciary Committee had few questions today for two of President Barack Obama's nominees for U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, signaling a potentially easy path to confirmation in the months ahead.
No Republican senators were present to question the two nominees, Paul Engelmayer and J. Paul Oetken, and the two Democrats in attendance called themselves strong supporters.
The nominees, along with a third district nominee, Ramona Manglona for the District of the Northern Mariana Islands, faced friendly questions from the Democrats about their experience and how they would transition to the federal bench.
Engelmayer, the head of the New York office of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, said a judge should be modest and listen to litigants. “The judge is not the center of attention. It is not the judge that parties come to court to see,” he said in response to a question from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y).
Schumer, who recommended Engelmayer and Oetken to the White House, presided over the confirmation hearing. The part of the hearing dealing with the three district nominees lasted about 20 minutes.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) overlapped at Yale Law School with Oetken and praised the nominee’s legal skills. “My impression of you has always been that you’re someone with a searching intellect and incredible ability,” Coons said.
Oetken responded that Yale alumni are proud to have Coons, who won election in November, in the Senate. “I never expected that I would be on this side of the table from you,” said Oetken, who is senior vice president and associate general counsel at Cablevision Systems Corp.
In response to a question from Schumer, Oetken described managing an array litigation at Cablevision, an experience he said would be valuable in Manhattan federal court. “It’s allowed me to see, from the inside of a corporation, what legal life is like, what corporations face in the legal arena, what corporate boards face in the legal arena,” Oetken said.
If he gets senators’ approval, Oetken would make history as the first openly gay man confirmed to the federal bench. Coons appeared to allude to that fact, saying that Oetken’s confirmation would show that only legal-related qualifications should matter for judicial nominees.
Oetken had a role in Lawrence v. Texas, the major gay-rights case in which the Supreme Court in 2003 struck down state anti-sodomy laws. He co-wrote an amicus brief on behalf of the National Gay and Lesbian Law Association and several other organizations in support of the petitioners. Jenner & Block partner Paul Smith, who argued the Supreme Court case for the petitioners, was in the audience for today’s confirmation hearing.
Unless major opposition emerges, the Senate Judiciary Committee is likely to vote on the two nominees within a month.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee’s top Republican, said he could not be present to question the nominees because of a prior commitment to meet with a group of Iowa high school students. He has several days to submit questions in writing.
Both Oetken and Engelmayer are former Supreme Court clerks, for justices Harry Blackmun and Thurgood Marshall, respectively. Before joining Wilmer, Engelmayer was chief of the major crimes unit at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York and an assistant to the U.S. solicitor general in Washington. Oetken was an associate White House counsel in the Clinton administration and is a former Debevoise & Plimpton associate.
National Law Journal photos by Diego M. Radzinschi.