U.S. Senate panel advances 9th Circuit nominee Koh

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(Reuters) - A U.S. Senate panel on Thursday advanced the nomination of Lucy Koh to become a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals over Republican objections to a decision she wrote allowing California to restrict religious gatherings during the pandemic.

The 13-9 vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee cleared the way for the full Senate to consider elevating the San Jose district court judge to the 9th Circuit and make her the first Korean-American woman to serve as an appellate judge.

The committee also advanced the nominations of Jane Beckering and Shalina Kumar to serve as judges in Michigan's Western and Eastern Districts, respectively, and Armando Bonilla and Carolyn Lerner to serve on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

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President Joe Biden has since taking office nominated 53 federal judges. He has sought to put more women and minorities on the bench and appoint lawyers with more diverse professional backgrounds than has been common in recent decades.

The Senate on Thursday confirmed the 26th of Biden's nominees, Connecticut federal district court pick Omar Williams, by a 52-46 vote, and also voted to cut off debate on the nominations of Beth Robinson and Toby Heytens to the 2nd and 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, respectively.

Koh, 53, is one of Biden's 13 appellate nominees to date and one of four picks for the 9th Circuit, which hears appeals from Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Koh has been a district court judge since 2010 and had previously been nominated by then-President Barack Obama in 2016 to the 9th Circuit.

But that nomination lingered in the Senate, then under Republican control, and she was never confirmed. She had earlier been a state court judge in California and a partner at McDermott Will & Emery.

As a federal judge, Koh has overseen several major cases involving Silicon Valley, including class actions arising out of the massive data breaches at Yahoo! Inc in 2016 and smartphone patent litigation between Apple Inc and Samsung.

During a hearing before the Judiciary Committee on Oct. 6, Republican panel members zeroed in on a ruling she issued in February that said California could ban small religious gatherings in homes in order to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The 9th Circuit upheld that decision, but the conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court in April overturned it, saying it was an improper curb on in-home religious services.

Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri on Thursday called that decision a "deeply troubling" affront to religious rights and highlighted that it was one of three decisions by Koh that the Supreme Court over the course of a year blocked or reversed.

"What that means is she just isn't getting the law right, and that's a problem given the job she is asking for a promotion for," Hawley said.

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the committee's Democratic chair, countered that Koh had been bound by 9th Circuit precedent and that Hawley was cherry-picking just three of more than 3,000 rulings she has written. He called her "impartial."

(Editor's Note: This story has been updated with further Senate vote activity.)

Read more:

9th Circuit nominee Lucy Koh defends COVID-19, antitrust rulings

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.