Federal public defender Veronica S. Rossman of Colorado became the Biden administration's 12th confirmed judicial nominee on Monday, as the U.S. Senate voted 50-42 to approve her appointment to the federal appeals court based in Denver.
Rossman will be the only public defender on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, which hears appeals of federal cases from Colorado, Utah, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Wyoming. She succeeds Carlos F. Lucero, a Clinton administration appointee who in February took senior status, a form of retirement that allows him to continue handling cases while also creating a vacancy.
"This is a historic day. Ms. Rossman will be the first federal public defender to sit on our distinguished 10th Circuit bench," said Virginia L. Grady, Federal Public Defender for Colorado and Wyoming, who submitted Rossman's name for consideration. "She is well known as a devoted student and scholarly teacher of the law, with a unique perspective of its impact on individuals. Her appointment underscores the value of the public defender experience, and we are honored by President Biden’s and Sens. Bennet and Hickenlooper’s recognition of our work."
Excluding senior judges, the 10th Circuit has 12 authorized members with lifetime appointments, including three from Colorado. The 10th Circuit is the only federal appeals court with an even number of judges appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents, but Rossman's confirmation will return the court to having a majority of judges who are Democratic appointees.
There is one remaining vacancy on the court: Senior Judge Mary Beck Briscoe, a Clinton administration appointee, stepped down from active duty in March. The White House has not put forward a nominee to succeed Briscoe, who is from Kansas.
Rossman, who is 49 this year, is part of President Joe Biden's push to diversify the federal bench by adding lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds, such as defenders of indigent clients. She is also an immigrant, with her family having left Russia to escape from anti-Semitism.
"She fought for the American ideal that everyone deserves equal justice under the law," said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in a speech last week advocating for her confirmation. "We need more judges like Veronica who are not only highly qualified, but who know what it means to be on the wrong end of the legal system that too often fails the most vulnerable in our society."
A lawyer with the federal public defender's office for Colorado and Wyoming since 2010, Rossman manages the appellate division and has handled appeals from all states within the 10th Circuit. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Rossman focused on compassionate release, which is a sentence reduction mechanism for inmates with compelling enough health or family reasons to warrant their release from incarceration.
She graduated from Columbia University and subsequently obtained a degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Rossman's professional experience prior to the public defender's office included time spent clerking for the Nevada Supreme Court, handling complex civil litigation in private practice, teaching at the University of Denver and working as a staff attorney for the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit.
Recently, she represented Robert Lewis Dear Jr., who stands accused of murdering three people at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic in November 2015. Proceedings at the federal and state level have stalled, as once again a judge has decided Dear is not competent to stand trial.
Appeals court judges are in the powerful position to clarify the law for lower courts within their geographic regions. Most cases terminate at the circuit level, given that the U.S. Supreme Court hears very few appeals each year. John P. Collins, Jr., a visiting associate professor at The George Washington University Law School, said the Biden administration has now won confirmation for more circuit judges than the Trump administration at the same point in its first year.
"In terms of pace, this keeps Biden well ahead of Trump. Trump’s fifth circuit judge, Amy Coney Barrett, wasn’t confirmed until October 31," he wrote on Twitter. Barrett is now a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Rossman is now the second federal judge confirmed to the bench in Colorado this year. A third nominee, workers' rights attorney Charlotte N. Sweeney, is awaiting her Senate committee hearing for a seat on the state's seven-member federal trial court.
The clerk for the 10th Circuit said the earliest Rossman could begin hearing cases would be during oral arguments in November.
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