San Francisco Chronicle: Padilla calls out treatment of judicial nominees of color ahead of Supreme Court fight

By Tal Kopan

California Sen. Alex Padilla this week called out colleagues over what he said was disparaging treatment of judicial nominees of color, laying down a marker as he gears up to be a key voice in the confirmation hearings of a nominee who could become the first Black woman on the Supreme Court.

The Democrat made his remarks before a Thursday vote by the Judiciary Committee to advance the nomination of Andre Mathis to the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, citing in particular the treatment Mathis received at his confirmation hearing, including being asked about a “rap sheet” in reference to decade-old traffic tickets. But Padilla noted in his remarks his concerns were broader — and his office told The Chronicle that he was also talking about incidents involving Judge Lucy Koh, of San Jose, at her hearing before being confirmed to the Ninth Circuit.

“It’s not lost on me that nominees of color have been treated differently in our hearings, whether it’s insinuations of a ‘rap sheet’ or hostility about their qualifications or views or undue scrutiny of their personal religious faith,” Padilla said to his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee. “I want to take this moment to ask all of my colleagues to, please, let’s just be cognizant of this disparity.”

Padilla did not have further comment beyond his remarks at the hearing, but his office said he felt it was particularly important to speak out ahead of the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation process. President Biden has made clear he will nominate a Black woman to succeed retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. If confirmed, she will be the first Black woman to serve on the nation’s highest court.

Later Thursday evening, Padilla attended a meeting at the White House between Judiciary Committee Democrats and Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Afterward, he told reporters that he was enthused by the number of qualified candidates who were even stronger choices by virtue of their life experiences as Black women.

Since he replaced Harris in the Senate last January, becoming the first Latino senator from California, Padilla has been a staunch advocate of diversity, including among judicial nominees. His comments on Thursday marked a sharpening of that advocacy to include calling out his own colleagues’ behavior.

Padilla spoke in particular about Mathis, an accomplished lawyer who has done considerable pro bono work to represent people in court who can’t afford attorneys. Noting Mathis’ qualifications, Padilla said the committee’s role in vetting nominees is important but doesn’t merit inappropriate questioning.

“I was particularly troubled by some of the treatment that Mr. Mathis was subjected to during the hearing,” Padilla said. “During the hearing, Mr. Mathis was asked to answer for his ‘rap sheet’ with a ‘laundry list of citations.’ So let’s be clear: Mr. Mathis is not a career criminal or violent felon as the question implied. … Whether it was unintentional or intentional, questions and tones like what I heard during his hearing are demeaning, offensive and just plain wrong.”

Padilla was referring to questions by Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who represents Mathis’ home state of Tennessee. Blackburn was asking Mathis about incidents from 2008-2011 when he received traffic tickets and failed to show up to court. Mathis emotionally explained that he had placed a ticket in his glove box and forgotten about it, and later resolved the issue quickly, and said he deeply regretted the incidents and causing embarrassment for his family. NAACP President Derrick Johnson called the questions “outrageous & offensive” in a tweet.

The committee advanced Mathis’ nomination 12-10 with the support of one Republican, Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy.

Padilla’s office also pointed to the confirmation of Koh, who was a district court judge in the Bay Area before her promotion to the Ninth Circuit.

At her hearing, Koh faced scrutiny over her ruling allowing California to restrict indoor religious gatherings during the pandemic, which was later overturned by the Supreme Court. But some of her supporters bristled at the way questions were posed to her. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, repeatedly asked her if she was biased against people of faith.

Koh repeatedly tried to tell Hawley about her own faith, as he interrupted her.

“Has the Supreme Court reversal of you maybe prompted you to confront some implicit biases you may have against people of faith?” Hawley asked.

“I’m a person of faith, so I would have to be having a bias against my own,” Koh said, as Hawley cut her off to interject: “So you’re telling me no, the answer is no.”

Also at her hearing, a comment by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the panel, drew rebuke. Intending to be complimentary, Grassley noted Koh’s statements about her experience in a Korean immigrant family and praised her Korean mother as her hero, as reported by The Des Moines Register.

“What you said about your Korean background reminded me a lot of what my daughter-in-law of 45 years has said: ‘If I’ve learned anything from Korean people, it’s a hard work ethic. And how you can make a lot out of nothing,’” Grassley said. “So I congratulate you and your people.”

But some noted that Grassley’s generalization of Koreans, even if intended as positive, was perpetuating a stereotype.

“Even as a compliment, assigning any trait to a whole community is the definition of prejudice,” Los Angeles County Rep. Judy Chu wrote on Twitter.

Some of Padilla’s Republican colleagues on the committee, however, took umbrage at his remarks.

“To accuse members of this committee of racism because you disagree with them on substance is a very serious thing and frankly I’m very startled to hear it,” Hawley said.

“I hope I misunderstood them to the extent he was suggesting racial bias on the part of members of this committee,” said Utah Sen. Mike Lee. “I know that to be grossly inaccurate, extraordinarily unfair and also of the sort of comment that would incite people to anger, acts of retaliation and violence.”

But Padilla was supported by other Democrats on the committee, including Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy.

“I worry about the charges made against some nominees who seem to be in some cases thinly veiled charges because they are a woman or a person of color,” Leahy said.

Fellow California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was present, did not chime in on the conversation, though her office said she does have concerns about treatment of nominees.

“The senator is concerned with how some nominees are being treated, including one nominee who has received threats, as Chairman (Dick) Durbin noted,” spokesperson Tom Mentzer said. “Using phrases like ‘rap sheet’ to describe traffic violations is not productive discourse.”

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