Something about judicial confirmation hearings seems to trip up Sen. Cory Booker -- who got corrected by a high-profile nominee on Tuesday during a heated exchange about diversity on her staff.
Booker made headlines last September for cheekily declaring his “I am Spartacus” moment as he moved to release sensitive documents during now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing, only to be told they weren't so sensitive after all. On Tuesday, the New Jersey Democratic senator tried to turn up the heat once again while grilling Neomi Rao, the nominee to replace Kavanaugh on the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C., on whether she ever had any LGBTQ law clerks.
The question was part of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate's bid to explore her views on LGBTQ rights, given her past writings – but there was a problem: Rao currently isn’t a judge, and doesn’t have law clerks.
"Have you ever had any LGBTQ law clerks?" Booker asked.
Rao responded: "Senator, I've yet to be a judge. I don't have law clerks."
Booker didn’t miss a beat, and clarified that he meant “someone working for you.” Rao is currently the head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a position described as the Trump administration’s “deregulatory czar."
“To be honest I don’t know the sexual orientation of my staff,” Rao responded. “I take people as they come, irrespective of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation. I treat people as individuals.”
Booker’s question was part of a combative back-and-forth between the senator and the judicial nominee over her stance on LGBTQ rights. Rao’s past statements and writings have come under fire since her nomination, especially a 2008 article opposing the Supreme Court’s 2003 landmark decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which made same-sex sexual activity legal in every U.S. state and territory.
Rao also wrote in a 1994 article in the Yale Herald, where Rao attended as an undergraduate student: “Because homosexuality, unlike gender and race, concerns a socially unacceptable activity, many gays have responded to the demands of normalcy in radical ways… Homosexual activism in its most visible form engages mainstream society in a total cultural challenge. The ‘promotion of queer expression’ comes in the form of explicitly sexual printed material, as well as national rallies and marches.”
During the hearing, Booker challenged Rao to say whether she thinks gay relationships are “immoral.”
"I am not sure the relevance of that," Rao said, responding to Booker’s question.
"Do you think gay relationships are immoral?" Booker asked again.
"I do not," Rao said.
"Do you believe they are a sin?" Booker said
"My personal views on any of these subjects are things I would put to one side," the nominee responded.
Rao’s past statements on the LGBTQ community are just one area that has raised concerns among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
During the hearing, Rao told senators that she cringes at some of the language she used as a college student in writing about sexual assault, race and equal rights for women.
Rao told the Senate Judiciary Committee that writings in which she criticized affirmative action and suggested that intoxicated women were partly responsible for date rape do not reflect her current thinking.
"I like to think I've matured as a thinker, writer and a person," she said.
Rao added that there were "certainly some sentences and phrases" from her college writing in the 1990s that "I would never use today."
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who recently said she was raped by her boyfriend as a college student, said Rao's writings "give me pause," in part because of the message they send to young women who may be reluctant to report a rape, as Ernst was.
Rao called rape a "horrible crime" and said anyone who commits rape should be prosecuted. Her comment that women should stay sober to avoid placing themselves at risk was merely "common sense" advice that her own mother gave her, Rao said.
Rao, 45, worked in the George W. Bush White House but has never tried a case in state or federal court.
She told senators that "perhaps I was idealistic" in writing opinion columns that were intended to be provocative.
Liberal activists and some Democrats have seized on Rao's writings, in which she also questioned the science behind global warming.
Some Senate Republicans pushed back against Rao's critics, saying her college writings are not outside the mainstream, while Democrats questioned Rao's comments indicating she would have voted to overturn the Affordable Care Act and her view that the president should be able to fire the heads of independent agencies such as the Federal Reserve.
The American Bar Association said Monday it has deemed Rao "well-qualified" for the appeals court.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.