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Senate confirms a White House official to replace Kavanaugh on appeals court

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday confirmed President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace Brett Kavanaugh on a high-profile appeals court, despite concerns about her past writings on sexual assault.

White House official Neomi Rao won confirmation to a seat on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on a straight party-line vote, 53-46. No Republican opposed Rao, and no Democrat supported her.

Rao, 45, heads the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, where she plays a key role in Trump’s efforts to roll back federal rules and regulations. She also worked in the George W. Bush White House but has never tried a case in state or federal court.

Trump nominated Rao for the seat left vacant when Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court last fall.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed concerns about her past writings, particularly on date rape and other sexual assault. As a Yale undergraduate Rao suggested that intoxicated women were partly responsible for date rape. She also criticized affirmative action and questioned equal rights for women and gay people.

Rao distanced herself from language she used as a college student, saying at her confirmation hearing that she cringes at some of the language she used in opinion articles she said were intended to be provocative.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who recently revealed she was raped in college, called Rao’s 1990’s opinion pieces “absolutely abhorrent and reprehensible at best,” but said she was reassured after Rao wrote a letter to senators repudiating her past views.

Ernst and other Republicans said she was qualified despite her lack of courtroom experience. They said Rao’s work on federal regulations qualifies her for the District of Columbia circuit, which handles many administrative appeals of executive branch actions, Ernst said. But she and other Republicans said they might view Rao differently if she is nominated to the Supreme Court.

Rao, widely seen as a future candidate for a Supreme Court seat, is a member of the conservative Federalist Society. The legal policy group has played a key role in Trump’s judicial nominations, including Kavanaugh’s elevation to the high court.

Democrats staunchly opposed Rao, citing her lack of trial experience and publicly stated pride at rolling back federal rules on Trump’s behalf. Rao said at her confirmation hearing that she and Trump have successfully pushed deregulation that “gets government out of the way” and helps small businesses and other companies create jobs.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Rao “an outstanding choice” to serve on the District of Columbia Circuit, widely considered the nation’s second-most important federal court, below only the Supreme Court.

“She is an expert on administrative law and has a sound, conservative judicial philosophy that one would expect from a Republican nominee for such an important position,” Graham said of Rao.

But California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the panel’s top Democrat, said Rao has a “troubling and aggressive record” on deregulation, particularly on rules that protect health and the environment. She was especially troubled at Rao’s efforts to dismantle a rule to increase fuel economy standards for cars, Feinstein said. The rule is based on a law Feinstein co-authored.

The Democratic National Committee said in a statement that Rao does not belong on the federal bench.

“A vote for Neomi Rao is a vote for a judge who blamed survivors of sexual assaults for being attacked. It is a vote for a judge who claimed sexual orientation is a ‘behavior’ that can be changed,” said Elizabeth Renda, the Democratic National Committee’s women’s media director, and Lucas Acosta, the committee’s LGBTQ media director, said in a joint statement.

The Republican senators who voted in favor Rao “willfully turned their back on women, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, low-income families and countless others,” the DNC said.

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