New questions raised about South Carolina federal court nominee

09/25/2013 5:07 PM

09/26/2013 7:46 AM

Stiffening political headwinds could complicate the nomination of at-large Circuit Judge Alison Renee Lee to the federal bench, amid fresh questions about her judicial decision-making.

In a sign of potential trouble, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said this week that Lee’s nomination to serve as a Columbia, S.C.-based U.S. District Court judge has provoked “concerns” among some South Carolina residents. Graham is a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has not yet scheduled a confirmation hearing for Lee.

“I’ve had a lot of concerns expressed about her,” Graham said in an interview Tuesday, “and I’ve been having a lot of meetings scheduled (about her) in the state.”

On Wednesday, Graham’s colleague, Republican Sen. Tim Scott, voiced similar sentiments.

“Senator Scott has significant concerns about the decisions Ms. Lee has made in her current role,” Greg Blair, Scott’s press secretary, said in an email response to questions. “The senator was able to hold an initial meeting with her following her nomination and will continue to evaluate all the available information about her candidacy.”

Senate Judiciary Committee staffers indicate the panel has not yet focused attention on Lee, who’s 55 and a graduate of Vassar College and Tulane Law School. When it does, the release of individuals later alleged to have committed other crimes while out on bail is certain to receive close scrutiny.

In January, Lee lowered the bond for an 18-year-old burglary suspect named Lorenzo Young. Lee consolidated bonds and reduced the total from $225,000 to $175,000 for Young, who subsequently was released and then later charged in the July 1 slaying of 33-year-old bagel baker Kelly Hunnewell.

On Wednesday, The State revealed that another teenager whose bond Lee had lowered, Dequan Vereen, was charged last week in the shooting death of a man outside a Richland County convenience store. The State reported that Lee reduced bond for Vereen, who faced charges of attempted murder and armed robbery, from $175,000 to $50,000 in February, according to records in the Richland County Clerk of Court’s office.

When the Senate Judiciary Committee examines Lee’s record, Graham’s role could become paramount.

“It is very important,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond Law School professor, noting that Graham is “a Senate Judiciary Committee member who can influence other GOP members.”

Graham’s committee influence and credibility among Democrats are especially strong because, unlike some Senate Republicans, he has been previously willing to support President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees. Graham was one of only five Senate Republicans to vote for Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and one of only nine to vote for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

“While it is our responsibility to challenge the court, to scrutinize the court, to put the nominee to a test, it is also our obligation to honor elections, respect elections, and to protect the court,” Graham said in 2010, explaining his willingness to support the president’s nominees.

At the same time, Graham’s past willingness to cross party lines has upset some South Carolina conservatives, who periodically threaten a primary challenge. Politically speaking, this could pose extra incentive to carefully scrutinize other nominees. Scott, appointed to the Senate this year, was not in his present office at the time of the Kagan and Sotomayor confirmation hearings.

Tobias, who specializes in federal judiciary issues, noted that Senate protocol typically requires both home state senators to assent with a so-called “blue slip” before the Senate panel will even hold a judicial confirmation hearing.

Obama nominated Lee and U.S. Magistrate Bruce Howe Hendricks on June 26. On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened a confirmation hearing for two other district court nominees tapped by Obama a month after the two South Carolinians. Two weeks ago, the Senate committee held a confirmation hearing for three nominees who were nominated in June, including one announced the same day as Lee and Hendricks.

Lee has already undergone some scrutiny.

A majority of the American Bar Association panel that studied Lee’s career deemed her “well qualified,” which is the highest rating, while a minority of the panel deemed her “qualified.” Most of Lee’s fellow district court nominees still awaiting confirmation, including Hendricks, received a “unanimously well qualified” rating from the ABA panel, according to documents filed with the Senate Judiciary Committee.

An extensive questionnaire filed with the Senate committee sheds further light on Lee’s background, including the steps that led to her nomination by the White House.

“In December 2012, I provided a resume to Congressman James E. Clyburn’s staff,” Lee reported. “I was interviewed by Congressman Clyburn at his Columbia, South Carolina office on January 9, 2013.”

Three months later, Lee reported, she was in contact with Justice Department officials, and in May she interviewed in Washington, D.C., with White House and Justice Department attorneys.

As a matter of standard practice, judicial nominees decline public comment prior to their confirmation hearing.

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