Controversial nominee gets through Senate Judiciary Committee
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted a controversial judicial nominee out to the full Senate on Thursday over the vigorous dissents of Democrats, but the panel held over another at the request of the White House.
Steven Menashi, up for a seat on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, serves as an Associate Counsel in the White House Counsel’s office. His nomination will now move to the full Senate, which will vote on his life time appointment in the coming weeks. He received a “well qualified” rating from the American Bar Association.
But Judge Halil Suleyman “Sul” Ozerden, who had been nominated for a seat on the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will be held over at the request of the White House. Ozerden’s nomination is on thin ice after he lost the support of Republicans on the committee including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri for an opinion he drafted while on Southern District of Mississippi.
The vote comes after a White House event Wednesday in the East Room attended by members of Congress where President Donald Trump called attention to what he said was a “profoundly historic milestone and a truly momentous achievement” of confirming almost 160 judges to the courts.
“And we should have, within the next short period of time — like two months — we should have about 182 federal judges,” the President said. Liberals have been deeply critical of some of the nominees, a handful of whom earned a “not qualified” rating from the ABA.
Democrats on the committee have long criticized Menashi for some of his early writings as a student for Dartmouth’s student newspaper and elsewhere. Menahsi told senators that he regretted the “lack of balance and provocative tone” in some of his writings. But some Republicans on the committee including Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, did express initial concerns about the fact that Menashi failed to explain in general his portfolio while serving in the counsel’s office. The vote had been held over previously, presumably to assuage those concerns.
On Thursday, Graham said he would vote in favor of Menashi but made clear the nominee could face bipartisan opposition before the full house. Graham acknowledged that he thought Menashi could have been more forthcoming about his work in the Trump administration and said “he has written some weird stuff.”
“He was full of piss and vinegar as a young person,” Graham said. But in the end he concluded “if you look at the man on paper, there’s an incredible story” noting that Menashi’s family fled to the United States after facing religious persecution. “He’s different than what I would have chosen, but I think he’s led a consequential life,” Graham said.
Before serving in the White House, Menashi worked as Acting General Counsel at the Department of Education. He also served as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis law firm and as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. He attended Stanford Law School.
Kennedy said he had spent time reading Menashi’s record. “Some of his views are eclectic and some I don’t agree with,” Kennedy said. “But his views are very very carefully reasoned.”
“I don’t think we ought to consider honest disagreements to be character flaws,” he said.
But several Democrats spoke out forcefully.
The committee’s top Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California pressed on the fact that Menahsi worked with Trump adviser Stephen Miller on immigration issues in the White House but would not answer questions if he was involved in the events surrounding the President’s call to the Ukraine. She stressed the committee was only seeking broad outlines of his work portfolio, not a detailed account of private deliberations.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second ranking Democrat in the chamber, accused the committee of “dumbing down” the judiciary and pressed on Menashi’s background.
“It’s impossible for me to believe that there are no experienced Republican attorneys in New York,” he said.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont emphasized that Menashi failed to answer basic questions about his work.
“This is beneath the Senate judiciary” he said.
Demand Justice, a liberal group, lambasted the nomination in a statement.
“Steven Menashi may have participated in the Ukraine coverup, and now some Republicans want to promote him from covering for Trump in the White House to covering for him on the federal bench,” Chief Counsel Christopher Kang said in a statement. “With this confirmation vote, we’ll see if Senators’ allegiances lie with justice or with Donald Trump,” he said.