Updated at 12:16 p.m. ET
President Trump’s nominee to replace Brett Kavanaugh on the nation’s second-highest appeals court defended herself amid scrutiny of her collegiate writings about sexual assault, environmental protections and multiculturalism.
Neomi Rao currently leads the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a position that’s been described as the Trump administration’s “deregulatory czar.”
As a Yale undergraduate, though, she staked out political positions that have drawn criticism for being too far outside the mainstream for someone to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Rao has been nominated for the spot opened on that court by the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
“To be honest, looking back at some of those writings, I cringe at some of the language I used,” Rao told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
Rao said she had “matured” as a writer and a thinker since she opined in college about such issues as date rape and women’s drinking.
“I certainly regret any implication of blaming the victim,” she said.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, said as a former prosecutor, Rao’s remarks bothered him “greatly,” because they could deter survivors of sexual assault from reporting crimes.
Shiwali Patel, a senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, pointed out what she called a “disturbing” irony that last year the nomination of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was nearly derailed by decades-old allegations of sexual assault lodged by Christine Blasey Ford.
Kavanaugh denied wrongdoing and ultimately won a seat on the high court. The issue of sexual violence has resurfaced, though, thanks to Yale-era newspaper pieces by Rao, who wrote that women who are raped can share the blame if they are intoxicated while it occurs.
“Rao said, ‘If she drinks to the point where she can no longer choose, well, getting to that point was part of her choice,’ ” Patel said.
Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who supports Rao, said she had done a “good job of explaining the content and the context” of her opinion articles.
Lee asserted that nominations hearings had become “blood sport” but that “people grow, they learn, and we should allow those changes to be taken into account.”
But Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, one of two Republican women who recently joined the committee, said some of Rao’s old writings had given her “pause.” Ernst is herself a survivor of sexual violence.
“I don’t think I would express myself in the same way” now, Rao responded.
New airing for past views
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said before the hearing on Tuesday that Rao would make “an exemplary judge.”
“Neomi Rao is a renowned constitutional and administrative law expert,” Kupec said. She took the criticisms about Rao’s past opinions head on.
“The views she expressed a quarter-century ago as a college student writing for her student newspaper were intentionally provocative, designed to raise questions and push back against liberal elitism that dominated her campus at the time,” Kupec said.
“More than two decades later, her views can be found in her numerous academic articles and speeches,” Kupec added.
For example, a few weeks before Trump announced Rao’s nomination for the D.C. Circuit at a White House ceremony for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, Rao penned an opinion piece in The Washington Post asserting the administration had saved “billions of dollars” by rolling back regulations.
The White House’s selections for prestigious appellate judgeships have mostly come from the ranks of white men. Rao, the daughter of Indian immigrants who went on to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, would become the first South Asian woman to sit on the D.C. circuit court.
Opponents, however, say Rao does not deserve the seat.
“As South Asians, we believe in the importance of a diverse judiciary, but Rao’s record is deeply alarming to us and we believe it disqualifies her for a lifetime federal appointment,” said Deepa Iyer, an author who is organizing opposition to the nominee.
In a call with reporters Friday, a progressive activist likened Rao to Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative firebrand who has opposed affirmative action and made films attacking former President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
D’Souza pleaded guilty to a federal campaign finance violation in 2014, but Trump granted him a pardon last year.
As for Rao, opponents rejected the idea that her statements while at Yale should be relegated to the past.
“The bottom line is Rao’s views have not matured,” said Daniel Goldberg, legal director at the Alliance for Justice.
“She has not evolved. She is the same person who wrote harsh, narrow-minded things in her 20s, and now as she’s being nominated to the nation’s second most powerful court, those views are even more dangerous and will have even more of an impact on so many people around our country.”
Tuesday’s hearing was be the first confirmation hearing for new Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who says installing judges will be among his highest priorities.
In a letter on Monday to Graham and the top Democrat on the committee, a representative of the American Bar Association notified the lawmakers that the organization has rated Rao “well qualified,” a fact Graham quickly highlighted in a press release.
Republicans have expanded their majority in the Senate, making it more difficult for Democrats to reject judicial nominees. But liberal activists may be playing out a longer-term strategy, in the event Trump wants to elevate Rao to fill a Supreme Court vacancy later in his presidency.