The family history and childhood of Regina M. Rodriguez took center stage at her confirmation hearing on Wednesday, as President Joe Biden's judicial nominee traced the path from her mother's World War II internment in a Wyoming camp for Japanese Americans to her three-decade career in the law.
“My grandmother had heard that there was still discrimination against Japanese in California. But she heard that the governor in Colorado was welcoming. So they moved the family to Colorado in Denver, and that has been the beginning of the legacy there," said Rodriguez, referring to former Gov. Ralph L. Carr, after whom Colorado's judicial center in downtown Denver is named.
Rodriguez, who is 58 this year, was the sole recommended candidate of U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper to the vacant seat on the seven-member trial court for the District of Colorado. Biden named her on March 30 as one of 11 people — women and attorneys of color — who will begin to fill the more than 100 vacancies among presidentially-nominated judgeships nationwide.
"Gina comes to this committee with broad support in my state. We’ve received a flood of letters on her behalf. All of them testify to her character, hard work, and commitment to justice and the rule of law," said Bennet in his introduction of Rodriguez to the committee.
"Given her extensive experience representing both plaintiffs and defendants, Rodriguez understands the importance of applying the law even-handedly, based always on the facts," added Hickenlooper, who once appointed her to an infrastructure task force when he was mayor of Denver more than a decade ago.
Rodriguez thanked both senators and Biden for her nomination, and also praised former President Barack Obama and former U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner. Obama had previously tapped Rodriguez for a judgeship in 2016, backed by Bennet and Gardner, but the Republican-controlled Senate never acted on her nomination.
She testified as part of a three-member panel, alongside two district court nominees for New Jersey. One of them, Zahid N. Quraishi, could become the country's first Senate-confirmed Muslim federal judge. All three spoke about the influence of their families, and Rodriguez appeared with what she deemed the "Colorado contingent" of her mother, children, sister and brother-in-law.
Rodriguez formerly worked as prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Colorado and more recently has been a partner at various Denver law firms. Currently, she works at the global law firm WilmerHale, and her client list typically includes Fortune 500 companies.
In detailed responses to a Judiciary Committee questionnaire, Rodriguez summarized her work in the private sector, which included defending corporations from product liability lawsuits. For instance, she represented the medical device company Zimmer Biomet between 2013 and 2015, following claims that its hip implant components were defective. Although the cases in which Rodriguez was involved resulted in settlement or a verdict favorable to her client, 752 implants were subject to recall in 2015.
She also was an attorney for Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. in a case involving the company's failure to warn about the danger posed by certain drugs in exposing the jaw bone of users. A California jury awarded a woman more than $2.1 million in a lawsuit against Rodriguez's client.
When Rodriguez emerged as the recommended choice of Colorado's senators on Feb. 3, some progressives, including the group Demand Justice, slammed Bennet and Hickenlooper for failing to suggest a public defender or civil rights attorney, the types of legal backgrounds the incoming Biden administration said it wanted on the federal bench.
"Bennet is standing in the way, demanding Biden appoint another corporate law partner. Tell Sen. Bennet: Support President Biden, not corporate lawyers," an ad from Demand Justice argued.
However, Rodriguez's questionnaire seemed to indicate the senators may have been acting with the tacit approval of the administration. She explained that earlier this year, Bennet's office contacted her about the judicial vacancy. She spoke with Bennet and Hickenlooper in mid-January, and then interviewed with attorneys from the White House Counsel's Office prior to the senators' public endorsement of her in February.
Bennet's office confirmed the account, and the White House did not respond to an inquiry.
Carl Tobias, the Williams Chair in Law at the University of Richmond, said there was a "strong argument" that Rodriguez satisfied in part the Biden administration's request for nominees of varied professional and life experiences.
"She also is a Latina and [the administration] asked for ethnic diversity," Tobias said.
Smooth path to confirmation?
If the Senate confirms her, Rodriguez would fill the seat of Senior Judge Marcia S. Krieger, who stepped down as one of the seven active judges in March 2019. The policymaking body for the federal judiciary has declared a "judicial emergency" in Colorado due to the high number of civil case filings per judge relative to established benchmarks. U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse has also authored legislation to add three more trial court judges in the state given the massive population increase since Congress last authorized a new seat in 1984.
The three district court nominees had a substantially shorter and friendlier time in front of the committee than the two circuit court of appeals nominees who appeared immediately prior. Circuit judges, who review district court decisions and clarify the law through their rulings, are generally the final stop for cases given the tiny number of appeals the U.S. Supreme Court chooses to hear.
Democratic and Republican members of the committee took overt swipes at each other over the treatment of President Donald Trump's 226 confirmed judges, who were overwhelmingly white and male, some of whom the American Bar Association deemed unqualified.
"It’s a welcome change to see nominees who have been selected for their credentials and abilities ... For four years, President Trump nominated and Senate Republicans approved far too many nominees, many of whom never should have been nominated," said the committee's chair, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "The Biden administration taken an important step toward orienting the courts back toward even-handedness, fair-mindedness and competence.”
Republicans, by contrast, fixated on the notion of "packing" the Supreme Court with more justices, a topic on which Biden's circuit court nominees declined to weigh in directly.
Of the 22 committee members, only Durbin and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., chose to engage with the three district court nominees. In response to a question from Durbin, Rodriguez recounted an experience from her senior year of high school. At the time, she was living in Durbin's home state and had an idea she wanted to become a lawyer.
"But I didn’t know any lawyers and didn't really know what all that involved," she explained. "So in my rather naïve 17-year-old way, I put on my best suit and I started going from door to door to lawyers’ offices in our town."
Eventually, she found one civil rights and criminal defense lawyer who allowed her to work for him over the summer and find out what attorneys did. She served subpoenas and created a bank of court briefs.
“That really was the start that I got," Rodriguez said.
Although Rodriguez has not previously served as a judge, she did sit on a hearing panel in 2012 for Colorado's Office of the Presiding Disciplinary Judge, in which she adjudicated a complaint against a fellow attorney. Currently, Rodriguez is a special master in Colorado's district court, where she issues orders reviewable by a judge in a dispute between recording companies and a music streaming service.
"I think there was less opposition to district nominees because some deference is given to home state senators," said Tobias. "All three are well qualified, mainstream nominees with much experience, so there is little basis for opposition. Rodriguez also has a compelling life story and has done much valuable legal work in the federal courts."
Senators have one week to submit any further written questions to the nominees, and a committee vote will follow.
This article has been updated to clarify Zahid N. Quraishi's potential status as the first Muslim to be confirmed as a federal judge.