Colorado's senators have recommended three candidates to the White House to fill an upcoming vacancy on the state's federal trial court, all of whom would bring differing personal and professional experiences to the bench.
"All three candidates have the temperament, character, and integrity to serve the people of Colorado with honor and distinction," wrote U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper in a Friday letter. Presidents have historically given senators substantial influence over the nomination of U.S. District Court judges from their home states.
In this case, President Joe Biden's selection would succeed Judge R. Brooke Jackson, 74, who will enter a form of retirement known as senior status effective Sept. 30. Jackson, an Obama administration nominee, took office in 2011.
The senators' choices are Nina Y. Wang, Kenzo Kawanabe and Charlotte N. Sweeney. Their names came out of an advisory committee that Bennet and Hickenlooper organized to screen and interview applicants.
Wang is currently a magistrate judge at the district court, a position she has held since 2015. Federal magistrate judges, who are not subject to presidential nomination and Senate confirmation, can handle a variety of procedural actions, including presiding over trials of civil cases if both of the litigants consent. More commonly, Wang has overseen pretrial processes, including making recommendations to district judges on cases involving the Aurora police protesters and lawsuits against prison officials, among other topics.
Prior to her judicial experience, Wang was an intellectual property attorney and worked in the U.S. Attorney's Office for Colorado. Upon taking office at the district court, Wang was the fourth Asian American woman to serve as a judge in the entire country. She immigrated from Taiwan as a child and graduated from Harvard Law School.
"Judge Wang has been a fantastic magistrate judge during my time as U.S. Attorney — always fair, thoughtful and well-prepared," said Jason R. Dunn, who was Colorado's top federal prosecutor during the Trump administration. Wang was initially a contender for an open judge seat in 2016, and Dunn added he "became a huge fan [of hers] from then on."
Kawanabe is a partner at Davis Graham & Stubbs in Denver who handles cases involving commercial disputes, shareholder disagreements, product liability and intellectual property. He served as a clerk for the late Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey of the Colorado Supreme Court and was the first general counsel for the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association.
After growing up in the San Luis Valley, Kawanabe graduated from the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. His Japanese-American grandparents on his mother's side were subjected to internment in Arizona during World War II. As the leader of his firm's pro bono work, Kawanabe has represented refugees and impoverished school districts who brought constitutional K-12 finance claims.
Kawanabe, his wife and his daughters "are committed as a family to paying forward the opportunities from which they have benefitted," Lauren Y. Casteel, leader of The Women's Foundation of Colorado, told Asian Avenue magazine last year.
Sweeney practices employment discrimination and civil rights law as a partner at Sweeney & Bechtold. She helped draft the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act in Colorado in 2019, which enacted prohibitions on wage discrimination. Sweeney is a member of the Colorado LGBT Bar Association, and previously led the Labor and Employment Section of the Colorado Bar Association as well as the Plaintiff Employment Lawyers Association.
She represented professors at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law in an unequal pay lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which culminated in a $2.66 million settlement in 2018.
In December, Sweeney also filed suit against the city of Denver on behalf of a woman with cerebral palsy who was terminated, allegedly in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Senate is currently considering two of Biden's nominees for open judgeships in Colorado. Regina M. Rodriguez, the president's choice for another district court seat, gained the approval of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on Thursday. Veronica S. Rossman, whom Biden selected for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, is awaiting a Senate hearing.
In all, there are in excess of 110 current or future judicial vacancies at the federal level.