Senate panel advances controversial nomination of Neomi Rao

Neomi Rao, President Donald Trump’s nominee for a powerful appellate court who came under early and unexpected criticism from two Republicans, was successfully voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Her nomination will now come before the full Senate. Rao is perhaps one of the highest profile nominees to come before the new Congress, and some of her supporters have suggested she might some day be a nominee to the Supreme Court.

Trump took the unusual step of announcing her nomination himself last November, for the now vacant seat of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

Yet last week, Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican in his second month in office, expressed concerns about her views on abortion. Specifically, he wanted to know more about her position on “substantive due process.” Conservatives believe the legal doctrine has led courts to strike down laws for violating rights that are not listed in the text of the Constitution, such as the “right to privacy” which was the basis for Roe v. Wade and other opinions.

Hawley’s questions drew the ire of some Republicans and outside groups stunned that he would question a candidate who had been through a thorough vet from the White House and announced by the President.

Thursday, Hawley said that after meeting with Rao twice and speaking to some of the nominee’s former bosses, including Justice Clarence Thomas, he was satisfied about her legal philosophy and would vote in her favor. He also pushed back on the criticism directed at him.

Hawley said that he had been sent to Washington to “change a broken system” and that he was “committed to thoroughly vetting every judicial nominee who comes before the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

Joni Ernst, a Republican senator from Iowa, also said she would vote in favor of Rao. But Ernst said she was doing so even though she thought some of Rao’s articles — written years ago while she was a student at Yale University — about date rape were “abhorrent.” Ernst has recently disclosed that she is a survivor of sexual assault.

Ernst took the unusual step during the hearing of saying that if Rao were ever up for another seat on another court, she may not get the senator’s support. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas expressed a similar sentiment.

Rao currently serves as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. It’s a little-known entity within the Office of the White House Office of Management and Budget charged with ensuring that federal agencies follow the law and act consistently with the administration’s policies.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina has also spoken with Thomas about the nomination.

“The senator has talked with Justice Thomas. He is always open to discussions with his colleagues, and will continue to do so throughout the confirmation process,” a Scott spokesman said.