In a 53-46 vote largely along party lines, the U.S. Senate confirmed Indian American jurist Neomi Rao to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, the second-highest court in the nation.
Rao’s confirmation came amid a good deal of opposition from Indian American women who challenged the new judge’s views on date rape, which seemingly blamed victims, and her attempts to roll back protections for sexual assault victims at high schools and colleges. A day earlier, several women held a rally in front of the Supreme Court, fiercely opposing Rao’s nomination.
The Senate confirmation vote came after two female senators, Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii; and Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire, expressed their serious concerns about the nominee. Rao currently heads up the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget, and is known as Trump’s regulatory czar.
Hirono noted that Rao had used her position at OIRA to strip away environmental protections. “She supported efforts to replace a clean power plan which would have reduced greenhouse gas emissions with a rule that would increase air pollution and could lead up to 1,400 additional premature deaths,” noted Hirono.
The senator from Hawaii accused President Donald Trump of ‘court packing,’ noting that he has nominated more than twice the number of judicial appointees as previous administrations.
Hassan stated: “Ms. Rao once claimed that women shared the responsibility for being raped, saying, ‘if she drinks to the point where she can no longer choose, well, drinking to that point was her fault.’”
The senator noted that Rao had expressed her regrets for comments she made in college, but stated that damage was inflicted that could not be undone. (See earlier India-West story here: https://bit.ly/2VmIw1K)
The White House had not issued a statement on the confirmation at press time Mar. 13. President Trump did not immediately issue his characteristic tweet. But KellyAnne Conway, counselor to the president, immediately tweeted: “Congratulations to former White House colleague Neomi Rao on her judicial confirmation to the DC Circuit. Brava, Your Honor!”
Rao is the first Indian American woman to serve in this role. She will join Justice Sri Srinivasan, who also serves on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
Rao is also the first Parsi to be appointed to an appellate court. Arzan Wadia, vice president of the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America (FEZANA), told India-West immediately following the Senate vote: "Neomi Rao is the first Parsi Zoroastrian to be appointed as a federal District Circuit Court judge. It is a proud moment for the miniscule Zoroastrian community in America."
"We are sure that her faith and her legal acumen will guide her on the path of Asha and she will use her Vohumana — good moral state — in all she does professionally," said Wadia.
The South Asian Bar Association of North America was engaged in a lobbying day on Capitol Hill at the time of Rao's confirmation and also had not issued a press statement. Last November, when Rao's nomination was announced, the organization issued a press release congratulating the nominee. “We congratulate Ms. Rao on her historic nomination,” said SABA president Sundeep Sandhu. "She is a highly regarded academic and we have been pleased to work with her over the years at SABA," said Sandhu, noting that Rao is widely considered an expert in administrative law.
Rao's confirmation, however, was met with disappointment by several Indian American activists, who had rallied hard to oppose the nomination immediately after it was announced. Indian American activist Deepa Iyer, who is credited with spearheading the effort, told India-West after the Senate vote: "I am deeply disappointed. Through her college writings, her scholarly works, and her tenure at OIRA, Rao has established a pattern of gutting a lot of protections Americans rely on."
Iyer supported Hirono's charge of court-packing, and stated that the system of checks and balances for reviewing lifetime judicial appointments has largely been disbanded.
"We need to see through the diversity optics. Rao doesn't stand for us," she stated.
Anisha Singh, director of judicial nominations at Planned Parenthood, noted to India-West that Rao at OIRA was responsible for changing Title X regulations, which would strip funding for Planned Parenthood and bar any clinic from referring a patient for an abortion. Title X provides $290 million in federal funding to family planning organizations.
Krittika Ghosh, executive director of the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project, told India-West: “As a survivor of sexual assault, Rao’s comments are really disturbing to me. Ghosh noted that Rao has tried to strip provisions of Title IX, which make it more difficult for victims at schools and colleges to report assault and to receive support services.
“Her framework of analysis is that a victim plays a role in her victimization,” she said.
“My experience with assault is invalidated by someone like her sitting on a court bench,” stated Ghosh.
Earlier this year, Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh was accused of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford in high school. Ford’s testimony riveted the nation, but Kavanaugh was confirmed nonetheless.
Ghosh said the Trump administration’s response to women is “appalling,” especially immigrant and disabled women.
Iyer noted that though Rao has been confirmed, a path has been laid so that she is unlikely to be nominated to the Supreme Court. The new judge was once on a short-list of potential Supreme Court nominees.