Senate confirms White House official Rao for appeals court

FILE - In this Feb. 5, 2017 file photo, Neomi Rao, President Donald Trump's nominee for a seat on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee for her confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Senate on March 13, 2019, confirmed Rao, President Donald Trump's nominee to replace Brett Kavanaugh on a high-profile appeals court, despite concerns about her past writings on sexual assault. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday confirmed President Donald Trump's nominee to replace Brett Kavanaugh on a high-profile appeals court, despite concerns about her past writings on sexual assault.

White House official Neomi Rao won confirmation to a seat on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on a straight party-line vote, 53-46. No Republican opposed Rao, and no Democrat supported her.

Rao, 45, heads the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, where she plays a key role in Trump's efforts to roll back federal rules and regulations. She also worked in the George W. Bush White House but has never tried a case in state or federal court.

Trump nominated Rao for the seat left vacant when Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court last fall.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed concerns about her past writings, particularly on date rape and other sexual assault. As a Yale undergraduate Rao suggested that intoxicated women were partly responsible for date rape. She also criticized affirmative action and questioned equal rights for women and gay people.

Rao has distanced herself from language she used as a college student, saying at her confirmation hearing that she cringes at some of the language she used in opinion articles she said were intended to be provocative.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who recently revealed she was raped in college, called Rao's 1990's opinion pieces "absolutely abhorrent and reprehensible at best," but said she was reassured after Rao wrote a letter to senators repudiating her past views.

Ernst and other Republicans said Rao was qualified despite her lack of courtroom experience. Rao's work on federal regulations qualifies her for the District of Columbia circuit, which handles many administrative appeals of executive branch actions, Ernst said. But she and other Republicans said they might view Rao differently if she is nominated to the Supreme Court.

Rao, widely seen as a future candidate for the high court, is a member of the conservative Federalist Society. The legal policy group has played a key role in Trump's judicial nominations, including Kavanaugh's elevation to the high court.

Democrats staunchly opposed Rao, citing her lack of trial experience and publicly stated pride at rolling back federal rules on Trump's behalf. Rao said at her confirmation hearing that she and Trump have successfully pushed deregulation that "gets government out of the way" and helps small businesses and other companies create jobs.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Rao "an outstanding choice" to serve on the District of Columbia Circuit, widely considered the nation's second-most important federal court, below only the Supreme Court.

"She is an expert on administrative law and has a sound, conservative judicial philosophy that one would expect from a Republican nominee for such an important position," Graham said.

But California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the panel's top Democrat, said Rao has a "troubling and aggressive record" on deregulation, particularly on rules that protect health and the environment.

As head of the regulatory office, Rao "has taken a buzz saw to protections for women's health and for sexual assault victims on college campuses," added Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat, said Rao has "minimal practical experience in the law" and legal views that are "beyond extreme."

Addressing Trump from the Senate floor, Durbin asked: "Isn't there a good Republican conservative somewhere who's actually been in a courtroom, actually made an appearance in a case, maybe even tried a case or filed a motion and would know a courthouse if they saw it and on not on TV? Is that too much to ask for a lifetime appointment to the second-highest court in the land?"

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