Pamela Ki Mai Chen, a longtime prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York, was praised at a Senate hearing for having “the perfect temperament” to be a district judge, which she seems on her way to becoming in the EDNY. She would also be the fifth openly gay member of the federal bench.
In last Wednesday’s session of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chen’s sexual orientation was barely mentioned, a fact that shows how times have changed. What was mentioned was Chen’s inspiring personal story as a daughter of Chinese immigrants and what Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called her ideal temperament, her “illustrious career at the Department of Justice” and her “lifelong dedication to justice and doing the right thing.”
Chen, who heads the civil rights section in the EDNY office, was one of two assistant U.S. attorneys in the New York region whose nominations by President Barack Obama came before the judiciary panel. The other was Katherine Polk Failla, a longtime prosecutor for the Southern District of New York who was nominated to be a district judge in the SDNY.
The most pointed question to Chen, asked in a friendly manner by Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the panel, was whether she could promise to make decisions regardless of political ideology, given her history of work in Democratic Party politics. “Absolutely, I can assure you that politics will play no role in my decision making were I fortunate enough to be confirmed,” Chen said. “The assurances I can give you are based on my career as a public servant and working for the Department of Justice. No one accused me of ever making a decision based on any kind of political ideology, and I think my record speaks for itself over the last 20 years.”
As The Washington Blade, which calls itself America’s leading source of news of importance to the gay community, noted in its account of the hearing, there was only a passing allusion to Chen’s sexuality, as when Schumer introduced Chen’s partner, Amy Chester.
Failla, who heads the criminal appeals unit in the SDNY office, also pledged to mete out justice fairly and impartially and to decide cases “on the facts and the law” rather than on personal feelings.
The U.S. District Court for the SDNY is based in Manhattan and hears cases from eight counties. The court for the EDNY hears cases from Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island. Preet Bharara is the U.S. Attorney for the SDNY and Loretta E. Lynch is the U.S. Attorney for the EDNY.
There was nothing at last Wednesday’s hearing to suggest opposition to either Chen or Failla. But it is not clear, given the Senate’s adjournment and the lawmakers’ preoccupation with the approaching elections, when the 13-member Judiciary Committee (10 Democrats, 8 Republicans) will vote on the nominations, and when they will go before the full Senate.