Maria Araújo Kahn, an associate justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday as she seeks confirmation to sit on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But she largely avoided tough questioning from Republicans as they channeled their focus toward a fellow judicial nominee who testified alongside Kahn.
Kahn is President Joe Biden’s second nominee from Connecticut elevated to serve on the 2nd Circuit. Wednesday’s confirmation hearing is the first step toward processing her nomination before the Judiciary Committee votes on her confirmation and then sends it to the full chamber. If confirmed, she will replace retiring Judge Jose Cabranes.
While the minority party usually asks challenging questions of a president’s nominees, Kahn was able to bypass tough GOP scrutiny as they reserved most of that for Julie Rikelman, who is under consideration for a seat to the 1st Circuit Court, based in Massachusetts. Rikelman argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of the Mississippi abortion clinic at the center of the case that ultimately led to the end of Roe v. Wade, which protected a constitutional right to abortion.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced Kahn to the committee, praising her career both as an attorney as well as time served on the bench. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., could not introduce her due to a scheduling conflict but submitted a statement supporting her confirmation.
“Her life experience, her depth of compassion and empathy, as well as her strict adherence to the rule of law, will broaden the quality of our 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, and I look forward to her swift confirmation,” said Blumenthal, who is a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Kahn was born in Angola to Portuguese parents and emigrated from Africa to the U.S. at the age of 10. She is a former federal prosecutor and public defender and has served as a judge on two other state courts before her elevation to the Connecticut Supreme Court. During the hearing, she spoke to her experiences as both a law clerk and an immigrant and how they have informed her time on the bench.
Her nomination is part of an ongoing effort by Biden to expand diversity in the federal judiciary when it comes to not only gender and race but also professional background. He recently set the record for the number of public defenders appointed to Circuit Courts.
“None of us could have imagined that, one day, I would be before this committee as a nominee to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. This could only happen in this great nation,” Kahn said in her opening statement.
Democrats used their time to largely praise Kahn and gently question her about her time as an attorney and a judge.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., specifically pointed to her work as the lead investigator and prosecutor looking into a ponzi scheme in the early 2000s. She worked on the case involving Hakan Yalincak, a former student of New York University, who defrauded the school and convinced investors to give money to a fake hedge fund company.
Durbin asked her to describe her approach to the case as well as how she navigated prosecuting one that garnered a ton of media attention at the time. She said her team was following “the trail of money to prove the case.”
“It can be challenging to prosecute a case that gets so much attention in the media, but the focus has always been for me on the facts of the case [and] the law to be applied,” Kahn said.
But most Republicans on the Judiciary Committee only directed their five minutes of time for questions toward Rikelman and pressed her about her personal beliefs on abortion and how she would uphold the Supreme Court decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case that overturned Roe v. Wade.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Ill., who serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, pressed Kahn about her past response to a question about whether “the interpretation of the Constitution must evolve with history.” Another Republican on the committee asked a question about a similar topic.
“Other than amendments to the Constitution, what changes in our society and history should courts consider when interpreting the Constitution?” Grassley asked Kahn.
Kahn responded that she is committed to following both Supreme Court and 2nd Circuit precedent when cases come before her.
“When I was responding to that question, Senator, what I was referring to is first the text of the Constitution, and the intent of the Founders is primary and very important,” Kahn said. “But we also must recognize that the Constitution is an enduring document and that our forefathers could not have envisioned some of the changes, for example in technology, that would affect Fourth Amendment issues: unreasonable searches and seizures.”
It is unclear when the Judiciary Committee will vote on advancing Kahn’s nomination to the full Senate. Democrats are racing to confirm as many of Biden’s judicial nominees to the bench as possible before the November midterm elections or at least by the end of the year while their majority is still guaranteed.
Congress has a limited amount of days in session before the elections, though the Senate will remain in Washington at least until the early part of October. But it is likely many of the nominations to federal courts will get punted until the lame duck session later this year before a new Congress is sworn in.
The consideration of Kahn’s nomination comes a week after the Senate confirmed Judge Sarah Merriam, another Connecticut nominee, to the 2nd Circuit. Merriam, who is also a former public defender, was nominated by Biden last year to serve on the U.S. District Court in Connecticut and was quickly elevated to the federal appellate court to replace retiring Judge Susan Carney.
The 2nd Circuit Court is based in New York City and has jurisdiction over Connecticut, New York and Vermont. Three of the 13 lifetime appointments go to a nominee from Connecticut.
The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.