Conservative lawyer highlights her Indian origin and immigrant experience as senators interview her for seat on powerful federal appeals court
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, February 7, 2019 – Indian-American lawyer and scholar Neomi Jehangir Rao, President Trump’s pick for a coveted federal judgeship, spent a considerable amount of time at her Senate confirmation hearing, Tuesday, fielding questions about her past writings on sexual assault. The stakes are high!
If confirmed by the Senate that is controlled by Republicans, she will be the first Indian-American woman to serve on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals which is considered the country’s second most powerful court, a springboard to the Supreme Court. Rao, 45, who currently serves as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) which is part of the White House Office of Management and Budget, has been tapped by the president to fill the seat vacated by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Her confirmation hearing was tame compared to the ordeal he went through. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, declared at the outset that she has a “very impressive” background.
During two rounds of questioning extending for some two hours, senators repeatedly pressed her on views she had expressed in the past on rape, race and feminism, prompting her to admit, “I cringe at some of the language I used”.
Rao has been in the line of fire for her past skepticism of date rape claims. Her collegiate writings as a Yale undergraduate have surfaced including an op-ed in which she indicates that if a woman “drinks to the point where she can no longer choose, well, getting to that point was part of her choice”. At another point, she writes, “Although I am certainly not arguing that date rape victims ask for it, when playing the modern dating game women have to understand and accept the consequences of their sexuality”.
At the hearing, it was quite a sight to see Democratic senator Kamala Harris, a frontrunner in the 2020 presidential race, questioning Rao for her writings on sexual assault – one influential Indian-American woman standing up against another, both on opposite sides of a spectrum: one a conservative lawyer, the other a liberal politician.
Harris pointed out that her earlier comments blame survivors of sexual assault for the trauma they have experienced. “You said, ‘Women should take certain steps to avoid becoming a victim’. What steps do you have in mind that women should take to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault?”, she asked.
Rao responded, “Senator, it is just sort of a commonsense idea about, for instance, excessive drinking. You know, that was advice that was given to me by my mother”.
Harris pressed on, “So, that is one step you believe women should take to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault?”
Rao replied, “It is just a way to make it less likely. It is not to blame the victim. You know, rape and sexual assault are horrible crimes, but we are talking about what can you do to keep yourself safe”.
The California Democrat then grilled her about a 1993 article in which she wrote, ‘Date rape exemplifies the attempts of the nurtured feminist to develop an artificial alternative world in which women are free from sexual danger and no always means no’. The senator wanted to know, “When does no not mean no”?
Replying that “No means no” always, Rao admitted she regrets writing the above when she was in college.
Senator Ted Cruz spoke in her defense, characterizing her comments on date rape as “very good advice”. The Texas Republican told the committee, “I have two daughters” and “I certainly intend to give them the advice not to drink to excess. It is unquestionably true that any student that drinks to the point of getting drunk and losing control risks being a victim, risks being vulnerable”.
Republican senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, a survivor of sexual assault, told Rao, “I have looked at a number of your writings. They do give me pause. I worry about the message we are sending young people”. She asked outright, “Do you believe that rape is wrong”?
Rao replied, “Rape is wrong”, stressing it is a horrible crime and the victim is not to be blamed.
She told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “I enjoyed commenting” as a college student, but “Looking back at some of those writings and reading them, I cringe at some of the language I used. I was responding to things that were happening on campus at that time”, and “I certainly regret any implication of blaming the victim”. It was “not the most elegant way” to express her views, she conceded.
“I have always been someone who takes issues of sexism and racism very seriously”, she said. “I grew up in a very diverse environment” surrounded by friends from all ethnic backgrounds, she added.
At one point during the proceedings, she went so far as suggesting her “idealistic” college critiques of multiculturalism were inspired by American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
Last year, on November 13, President Trump chose a Diwali ‘diya’ lighting ceremony held at the White House as “an appropriate place” to announce what became “the big story” of the day: his intent to nominate Rao to the influential federal appeals court, a lifetime appointment.
“She’s going to be fantastic – great person”, Trump professed at the ceremony. Rao responded with gratitude. “Thank you very much, Mr. President, for the confidence you’ve shown in me. I greatly appreciate it”, she said.
On Tuesday, Rao was accompanied to the hearing by her husband Alan Lefkowitz, their two children, her father Jehangir Rao, members of the extended family, and friends from near and far. “My family is my greatest joy”, she underscored, and proceeded to speak about her parents who immigrated from India in the seventies. She told powerful senators how they started with almost nothing but, based on sheer hard work, were able to attain the American dream and pave the way for her to realize it, too.
Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, a Democrat-turned Republican, wanted to know if she has personally experienced racial discrimination, if it’s possible to be “racially insensitive without being a racist”? She replied in the affirmative that she has experienced discrimination.
Democratic senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont queried her about her assertions on climate change including her dismissal of it as “nothing more than a major environmental boogeyman”. There is overwhelming scientific consensus about the dangers it poses, he said.
Noting that “those statements are from college”, Rao said, “I think science has become much more conclusive over time. My understanding is that human activity does contribute to climate change”.
Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said it is her more recent statements that make him cringe such as calling Gun-Free School Zones and Violence Against Women acts “grandstanding statues”. Noting that she stated this just two years after the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School which occurred in December 2012, he said, “I don’t think you’ve ever spoken to a parent who has lost a child”.
Republican senator Mike Lee of Utah bemoaned that confirmation hearings have turned into a “blood bath” that includes probing into the past and searching for grounds to attack nominees. “People grow, they learn. We should allow those changes to be taken into account”, he said. “There’s certainly nothing disqualifying here”.
Senator Cruz reminded the committee that hearings for judicial nominees must not be a “theater for mischaracterizing or twisting nominees’ records or views, nor should it be an avenue for persecution”.
While a date has not been set for a committee vote on Rao’s nomination, she needs a majority to win confirmation and Republicans have a 53-47 advantage in the Senate.