Washington — The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved and advanced to the full Senate the nomination of Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen to serve on a federal appellate court.
The committee voted along party lines, 11-9, to approve Larsen’s selection for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which has jurisdiction over district courts in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. President Donald Trump nominated her May 8 for the position.
Larsen has served on the Michigan Supreme Court for two years and previously taught at the University of Michigan Law school for more than 10 years.
Earlier this year, she earned the top rating of well-qualified from the American Bar Association. But her pick drew criticism from liberal groups that questioned her affiliation with the conservative Federalist Society and some of her writings.
Sen. Diane Feinstein, the committee’s ranking Democrat, explained her opposition to Larsen by highlighting the concerns of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights on Larsen’s views on executive power, and the gay rights organization Lambda Legal on Larsen's inclusion on candidate Trump's list of possible U.S. Supreme Court nominees.
Trump had said one of his litmus tests was that the nominees would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, and Lambda Legal said a vote to confirm Larsen would be a threat not only to Roe but to gay rights cases “built upon Roe’s foundation.”
Larsen said at a hearing last month that she had no idea how she got on Trump’s list and was surprised to see her name when it was released.
Feinstein also was unhappy about Larsen’s response to questions about the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, which spent $100,000 on ads in Michigan supporting Larsen’s nomination.
“When she was given opportunity to disavow those ads or publicly say she didn’t want this dark-money outside group working on her behalf, she declined to do so,” the California senator said.
The uniform Democratic opposition came even after Larsen said during her September hearing that she would have no trouble ruling against Trump.
“Judicial independence means one very simple thing, and that is putting the law above everything else,” she said then. “Statutes passed by this body and the Constitution of the United States. So I would have absolutely no trouble. Indeed, that would be my duty.”
After the committee approved the nomination, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder praised Larsen on Twitter.
“.@MISupremeCourt Justice Joan Larsen is an outstanding judicial nominee - a great choice by @POTUS & @VP for the Sixth Circuit,” said Snyder, who appointed Larsen to fill a vacancy on the Michigan Supreme Court in 2015.
She won a partial, two-year term last November.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said she did not believe Larsen could be non-ideological or fair-minded in her deliberations and decisions if confirmed. Hirono had concerns about Larsen’s impartiality specifically in regards to reproductive and gay rights cases, she said.
At last month’s hearing, Democrats had questioned Larsen about memos that she wrote when she was deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel from 2002 to 2003 under President George W. Bush, advising the White House and attorney general on constitutional and statutory law.
Larsen said she wasn’t involved in writing or contributing to the Office of Legal Counsel's memos on torture, wiretapping without a warrant or the policy of indefinite detention, but she declined to elaborate on a March 2002 memo on the habeas corpus rights of detainees to challenge their detention in a court of law.
The U.S. Department of Justice has claimed privilege over that memo in litigation, so she would not discuss it, Larsen told senators.
She grew up in Iowa, graduating from the University of Northern Iowa and Northwestern University School of Law before clerking for Judge David Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and then U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
She then went into private practice for two years at the Chicago-based Sidley & Austin LLP in the firm's constitutional, criminal and civil litigation section in Washington.
Larsen’s teaching career at UM included running the school’s judicial clerkship program, helping hundreds of students pursue clerkships. She also continues to run the law school's moot court program.
Larsen and her husband, UM law professor Adam Pritchard, have two school-aged children and live in Scio Township.
The Judiciary Committee on Thursday also approved by 11-9 the nomination of Amy Barrett, a law professor at the Notre Dame Law School who was nominated for the 7th Circuit.
Feinstein and other Democrats raised concerns about Barrett’s lack of experience in a court of law or as a judge, and whether her Catholic faith would influence her rulings.