Nina Y. Wang

U.S. Magistrate Judge Nina Y. Wang appears for her confirmation hearing to a seat on the U.S. District Court for Colorado on May 25, 2022.

Nina Y. Wang is Colorado's newest federal judge, following a U.S. Senate vote on Tuesday of 58-36 to confirm her to the state's U.S. District Court.

Wang will succeed Christine M. Arguello, a 2008 appointee of George W. Bush who took a form of semi-retirement known as senior status effective July 15. The federal trial court will now regain its full roster of seven Senate-confirmed, active judges.

Her confirmation is also history-making. Wang has served since 2015 as a magistrate judge for the district court. Magistrate judges are hired by their Senate-confirmed counterparts to assist with caseloads, and they perform a variety of judicial tasks up to and including presiding over civil trials. 

Although being a magistrate judge in other federal courts throughout the country is often a stepping-stone to an appointment as a district judge, Wang is the first magistrate judge in the 146-year history of Colorado's U.S. District Court to receive a Senate-confirmed, lifetime appointment to a district judgeship.

Carl Tobias, the Williams Chair in Law at the University of Richmond who follows federal judicial nominations, said magistrate judges' proficiency in handling cases can reassure senators about a nominee's qualifications.

"I think that the MJ qualifications played an important part in her high level of bipartisan support because members of both parties appreciate that she and most other MJs have much relevant experience that most closely resembles the work that district judges do on a daily basis: criminal and civil work, discovery disputes, pretrial motions," he explained.

Because of Wang's unique circumstances, the district court itself does not have all of the logistics of her confirmation set in stone.

"We, too, find ourselves in new territory," said Jeffrey P. Colwell, the clerk of the court. He said that while Wang will move to a new courtroom in the downtown Denver courthouse, the changeover will not be immediate.

Wang is President Joe Biden's third appointee to the district court and his fourth appointee in Colorado overall. Each of Biden's judicial selections — all women — has been noteworthy: U.S. District Court Judge Regina M. Rodriguez is the first Asian-American federal judge in Colorado; Judge Veronica S. Rossman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit is the first public defender to be appointed to that bench; and Charlotte N. Sweeney, who the Senate confirmed in May to the district court, is the first openly LGBTQ federal judge in Colorado.

Wang's personal story was a prominent feature of her confirmation hearing. A 1997 graduate of Harvard Law School, her family immigrated from Taiwan to Kansas City when she was a child.

"They knew English, but people in their Kansas suburb couldn't always understand them. Some of Nina's first memories were ordering pizza for the family or speaking to store clerks on behalf of her parents," U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said when introducing Wang to the Senate.

In her legal career, she has clerked for a federal judge in Maryland, worked in the U.S. Attorney's Office for Colorado and spent more than a decade as an intellectual property attorney focusing on patent issues. She took office as a magistrate judge in 2015.

Wang, who is 50 this year, received several letters of support from multiple corners of the legal profession, including her former clerks, several generations of federal prosecutors and the Colorado bar associations representing LGBTQ, Black, Hispanic, female and Asian/Pacific-American attorneys. Senators also learned about her extracurricular work as a volunteer soup maker or server for the "sandwich line" at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church in Denver.

"Judge Wang is highly regarded by her peers and has a broad spectrum of legal experiences that will continue to serve the community well," said Clark Yeh, the immediate past president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Colorado, on Tuesday.

To date, Wang has presided over a half-dozen trials in federal court, all but one of which were civil cases. She reported at the time of her confirmation hearing that the 10th Circuit, in her seven years on the bench, had reversed her orders on only five occasions. That number rose by one last week, when the appellate court overturned Wang's decision to grant immunity to a Lakewood police officer being sued for a First Amendment violation.

Wang applied for a vacancy in April 2021. After interviewing with Bennet and U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, the White House nominated her in January of this year. Following her appearance before the Senate's judiciary committee in May, Wang submitted written responses to senators' questions about her judicial philosophy, understanding of significant cases and beliefs on specific legal issues.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked Wang about a 2008 donation she made in opposition to Amendment 46, a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have banned affirmative action in public employment, contracting or education. Voters narrowly defeated the measure.

"In 2008, you financially supported a cause to have the Colorado Constitution amended. Would you support any modern attempts to amend the U.S. Constitution? If so, which provision of the Constitution would you seek to amend?" Cruz asked her.

"Respectfully, I would note that the cause I supported was against — not in support of — a proposed amendment," Wang responded, adding any attempts to amend the Constitution would be outside her purview as a trial judge.

She also stated in reply to Cruz's questions that she does not believe the "fundamental principles of the Constitution change over time" without formal amendments, although she noted the U.S. Supreme Court requires the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment to account for "contemporary standards of decency."

There is one future vacancy on the horizon for Colorado's U.S. District Court. William J. Martínez, a Barack Obama appointee, has already announced he will transition to senior status in February 2023. Although Colorado's two senators have sent their recommendations to the White House, the Biden administration has not yet selected a nominee for the seat.

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