September 19, 2012 at 2:39 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Lesbian judicial nominee pledges fairness on the bench
Pamela Ki Mai Chen, federal judge nominee, lesbian, attorney, New York, Senate Judicial Committee

Pamela Ki Mai Chen (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A lesbian federal court nominee faced questions during her nomination hearing on Wednesday about her history in party politics and judicial temperament, but sexual orientation or LGBT issues didn’t come into play.

Pamela Ki Mai Chen, whom President Obama nominated in August for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, took questions during her hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on a panel of five judicial nominees.

If confirmed, Chen would join four other openly gay judges currently sitting on the federal bench and be the first Asian-American member of the LGBT community to sit on the federal court.

Perhaps the most pointed question came from Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking Republican, who asked about her work in party politics. The senator said that there wasn’t anything wrong with a judicial nominee having this history, but questioned whether it would interfere with her ability to rule impartially on cases.

“Absolutely, I can assure you that politics will play no role in my decision making were I fortunate enough to be confirmed,” Chen said. “The assurances I can give you are based on my career as a public servant and working for the Department of Justice. No one accused me of ever making a decision based on any kind of political ideology, and I think my record speaks for itself over the last 20 years.”

No questions came up during the hearing about sexual orientation or how she’d rule if presented with an LGBT-related case. Those issues are also largely absent from the questionnaire she submitted to the committee, which largely discusses her casework as a federal prosecutor and her focus on prosecuting human trafficking. The only LGBT reference found in the questionnaire was her membership in the National LGBT Bar Association.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who recommended the Chen nomination to Obama, introduced the nominee to the committee as he chaired the panel in the absence of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Schumer made a special mention of Chen’s partner, Amy Chester, as well as her partner’s sister, Sara Glasser.

Schumer touted Chen’s work as a U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, where she has served since 1998 — now as chief of the office’s civil rights litigation unit. The senator said she’s prosecuted “all manner of public corruption, gang, narcotics, and terrorism cases,” but he particularly praised her work against human trafficking, saying she’s become “internationally renowned for her tough and important prosecutions.”

“Ms. Chen is, all in all, not just a career prosecutor – although that in itself is a high calling – but a person whose lifelong dedication to justice, and to simply doing the right thing, bespeaks a perfect temperament for the bench,” Schumer said. “Anyone who knows her whom you talk to in New York will attest to this quality, and I look forward to many more years of Ms. Chen’s public service.”

Keeping her opening remarks concise, Chen recognized her partner seated behind her and family watching via the webcast in addition to thanking Obama for nominating her for the position.

To each of the nominees, Schumer asked how their experience would impact their decisions as judges and their views on judicial moderation. In response, Chen said she believes being a federal prosecutor has prepared her for a role on the court and taught her the importance of the rule of law, fairness and impartiality. She added judicial modesty means to her “understanding the limited role of the judiciary” and following precedent.

A Chinese-American, Chen’s parents were both born in China, but met after they both moved to the United States. Prior to working as a U.S. attorney, Chen was a trial attorney in the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Justice Department. She began her legal career in D.C., at the criminal defense firm of Asbill, Junkin, Myers & Buffone and at the law firm of Arnold & Porter after receiving her law degree in 1986 from the Georgetown University. Chen received a rating of “unanimously qualified” from the American Bar Association.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) questioned Chen about the criteria by which she’d interpret statutes and asked if she’d be more swayed by the words themselves or her perception of the subjective intent of the legislators who create the laws. As he asked the question, Lee noted Chen was smiling, saying, “I can tell you’re excited about that. That’s good. It speaks well of your enthusiasm to the task.”

“Certainly the former, rather than the latter,” Chen replied. “The plain text of a statute is the first thing, the primary source of interpretation. If the meaning is plain on the face of the statute, then the interpretation process stops there. If there’s any ambiguity about the meaning of the plain language of the statute itself, then I would refer to precedent, and interpretations of the statute that are controlling in my district, which would be the Second Circuit of the Supreme Court. If there was no directly controlling precedent, I would look for interpretations of analogous statutes or precedent in those circuits that would be guiding in some way or helpful. And then lastly, if all else fails, looking again at legislative history would be another source to divining the meaning of a statute.”

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked nominees about the importance of the federal government providing resources to localities to confront domestic violence and sex trafficking, citing the need to pass pending reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The Senate version of the the legislation contains explicit protections for the LGBT community against domestic violence, but this language isn’t found in the House version of the bill.

Chen affirmed the importance of localities participating in these efforts, saying, “The importance of local law enforcement and local advocacy agencies — I can attest personally, because of their nature of the crime being so hidden — it’s essential that first responders and people within these communities are able to help identify victims of trafficking, help provide support to them and help bring them to the attention of the local authorities. We’ve done that in countless cases.”

The Senate is poised to adjourn at the end of this week to allow the senators to run their campaigns, so the committee vote on the nomination couldn’t come up until the lame duck session of Congress after Election Day. Given Senate Republicans’ history of obstructing judicial nominees, whether she’ll get a vote in the Senate or have enough votes for confirmation remains to be seen.


Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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