The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee expressed skepticism today about the qualifications of four nominees for federal district court, including two for the high-profile Southern District of New York.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) shared his doubts about all four nominees as they appeared together for a confirmation hearing. Each of the nominees has support from her home-state senators, but the nominees could face protracted fights in the Senate if Republicans decide to oppose them.
Grassley focused the bulk of his concerns on Alison Nathan, a former associate counsel to President Barack Obama and former clerk to Justice John Paul Stevens. He noted that the American Bar Association’s guidelines (PDF) for rating judicial nominees ordinarily requires 12 years of experience practicing law, as well as substantial courtroom experience.
Nathan, 38, began practicing law in 2002. She spent four years at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, taught law school, worked for Obama and last year became special counsel to New York’s state solicitor general. Obama nominated her for the Southern District of New York.
“Do you believe that you meet the ABA’s standards?” Grassley asked.
“I understand the weightiness of the job of a district court judge, and I do believe I am qualified based on the breadth of experiences I’ve had and on the skills I have,” Nathan said. She added that her judgment, work ethic and other qualities would assist her in the transition.
On Monday, Edward Whelan III, president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, raised similar concerns to Grassley’s in a post at National Review Online.
Nathan faced questions, too, about her work on death penalty cases, about gun rights and about a 2006 article she wrote regarding habeas corpus rights for suspected terrorists. For each topic, she said she would follow Supreme Court precedent regardless of her own views.
In introducing her to the committee, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Nathan a “gifted young lawyer” and praised her “remarkably varied experience.” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who presided over the hearing, quoted from a letter (PDF) signed by 27 former Supreme Court clerks who support Nathan’s confirmation. The signatories include former clerks to the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist and to Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Grassley, the lone Republican to attend the confirmation hearing, did not limit his skepticism to Nathan. He questioned Katherine Forrest, a former Cravath, Swaine & Moore antitrust partner and another nominee for the Southern District of New York, about her relative lack of experience in criminal law.
Forrest responded that she’s begun to gain more experience since joining the Justice Department last year as a deputy assistant attorney general for antitrust. She said she oversees a docket of more than 100 criminal cases. “I do understand seriously that there is more to be learned. That is always the case when you’re entering a new area of the law,” she said.
Susan Hickey, a nominee for the Western District of Arkansas, became a state judge last year. She was previously the senior, career law clerk for a federal district judge for seven years, but has not practiced law since the early 1980s.
Under questioning from Grassley, Hickey said she believes she has sufficient experience. “I understand what a trial judge does. I know what litigants do. I understand the rules of civil and criminal procedure. I understand the rule of evidence,” she said.
The fourth nominee, Jane Triche-Milazzo, nominated for the Eastern District of Louisiana, was asked about her lack of experience in the federal system and how she would transition from Louisiana’s idiosyncratic state system. She pointed to federal experience early in her career and, as the other nominees did, to her willingness to put in long hours. “I can assure that I have the work ethic to make that transition as smoothly as possible,” she said.