GOP senators raise questions about Michigan judicial nominees' political donations

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Republican senators briefly raised questions Wednesday about political donations to Democrats made by two Michigan judges nominated to the federal bench by President Joe Biden. 

Biden in June tapped Oakland County Circuit Court Chief Judge Shalina D. Kumar for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. He also nominated Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Jane M. Beckering for a vacancy in Michigan's Western District.

In introductory remarks Wednesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Chairman Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, hailed the nominees as "exceptionally" well qualified.

But Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa countered that both Michigan nominees are former plaintiff attorneys with "long histories" of donating to Democrats.

"While there's nothing wrong with plaintiffs lawyers or anybody that wants to donate to any political party, including the Democrats, we should make sure that these nominees are willing to be even-handed on the federal bench," Grassley said.

Oakland County Circuit Court Chief Judge Shalina Kumar appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, for her nomination to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, said Beckering gave the maximum donation to Biden's presidential campaign, has a history of donating to Democratic candidates exclusively and ran for the Michigan Supreme Court as a nominee of the Democratic Party.

"It is your responsibility to fairly administer the law, regardless of your own political or social views," Blackburn said. "So how are the American people to be assured that you are going to separate your political and your judicial views?"

Beckering, 56, of Grand Rapids, replied that she is bound by the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct, which explicitly provides the ability of judges to make contributions to political campaigns. 

She also cited an advisory opinion from the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission that "expressly stated that it is not an appearance of impropriety."

Records show Beckering's donations in recent years went to candidates for the Michigan Legislature and courts, the campaigns of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, the Kent County Democratic Party and the Progressive Women's Alliance of West Michigan, among others. 

Kumar, 50, of Birmingham also donated to Whitmer's campaign and the Michigan House Democratic Fund, as well as judicial and state legislative candidates, according to disclosure records. 

Both nominees gave last year to the campaigns of Biden and Democratic Sen. Gary Peters Bloomfield Township, who along with Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, recommended them to the White House. 

Blackburn also asked Beckering about a comment she made in 2006 while running for the state Supreme Court that courts have a role in protecting the minority against the majority when they have overstepped their bounds on civil rights and on constitutional rights. 

"What did you mean by that, and how do you decide who the minority is in the situation?" Blackburn said. "Isn't that really a stone's throw away from politicizing and putting partisanship on the bench?"

Beckering replied that it was her effort to talk about the Constitution, "and that it is the job of judges to uphold the law, and the only time they overturn the law is when it conflicts, for example, with other precedent that is higher, and that includes the Constitution. That is the design of our Constitution." 

Asked about her judicial philosophy, Beckering said she is "someone who very seriously takes my oath to fairly and impartially apply the law."

"As Chief Justice John Roberts has said, 'to have the same strike zone for every party that comes before me to make a court a level playing field,'" Beckering said.

Most senators' questions at the hearing were directed to Jonathan Kanter, who is nominated to be an assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division.

"I think the Michigan nominees will be in fine shape because they are well qualified and experienced and have strong support of both senators," said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, who studies the judicial selection process. 

He expects both to be confirmed, although "it may be a close vote," Tobias said.

Kumar and Beckering were introduced to the committee by Stabenow and Peters on Wednesday. Stabenow noted both judges were initially appointed to their respective courts by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat; both were then elected by Michigan voters; and both attended the University of Michigan.

"I'm confident that they are ready and prepared to serve the people of Michigan and serve our country and the federal bench," Stabenow said. "Mr. Chairman, I look forward to supporting them on the floor of the United States Senate."

Beckering was joined at Wednesday's hearing on Capitol Hill by her husband Raymond and her three adult children, Marlee, Katie and Ray, as well as her parents, John and Sheila Buchanan, and her older brother, Robert, who is also an attorney. Kumar was joined by friends Jason Turkish and Eve Hill.

Peters said Kumar has "shined" in her role as chief judge of the Oakland County Circuit Court, "demonstrating effective and thoughtful public service, even amidst the challenges brought on by COVID."

Her term as chief judge of the second-largest trial court in Michigan during the pandemic prompted major changes to how the court operated and meant training judges to handle matters remotely and coming up with COVID safety guidelines, Kumar wrote in a questionnaire submitted to the panel.

As chief judge she is the top administrator of the Oakland circuit, which has 20 judges, 400-plus employees and a $72 million annual budget, Peters said.

Kumar was appointed to the court in 2007. She handles civil and criminal matters and has presided over nearly 10,550 cases, including 99 jury or bench trials that went to verdict or judgment, according to her questionnaire.

Kumar also served as presiding judge of the Adult Treatment Court for five years, which aims to treat and divert defendants from jail. 

"It's amazing to see the transformation of these people ... providing them treatment, helping them get employment, helping them get an education," Kumar said at Wednesday's hearing. 

She noted she had missed a graduation from the program Tuesday because she was in Washington for the hearing. 

"They derive so much benefit from that program. It is so much more important than incarceration, particularly the treatment, and I know they are always grateful," she added.

If confirmed, Kumarwould be the first federal judge of South Asian descent in Michigan.

"Known as a trailblazer in my home state, Judge Kumar's nomination helps reflect Michigan's rich diversity," Peters said.

"I'm pleased, and I'm proud to recognize Judge Kumar, not only for her experience but for the diverse voice and perspective that I know she will bring to the federal bench."

Kumar graduated from UM in 1993 and from the University of Detroit-Mercy School of Law in 1996. She was a civil litigator in private practice from 1997 to 2007, mainly representing injured clients in medical malpractice cases. She served on the Sylvan Lake City Council from 1997-98.

Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Jane Beckering addresses the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, during a hearing on her nomination to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

Beckering has served on the Michigan Court of Appeals since 2007 and is chief judge pro tempore of the court.

She's presided over roughly 4,070 cases that resulted in her issuing an opinion, according to a questionnaire she submitted to the committee. In 2016, she was part of a panel that ruled unconstitutional a Michigan law allowing people to hunt wolves.

Beckering was a trial lawyer for 17 years, beginning with the law firm Buchanan & Beckering PLC in Grand Rapids. Her practice concentrated on civil litigation, developing a niche in medical negligence cases.

In her unsuccessful run for the state Supreme Court in 2006, she campaigned that partisanship has no place in the judiciary and that judicial activism is unhealthy for democracy, according to her questionnaire.

Beckering earned her law degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1990 and her bachelor's degree from UM in 1987, according to her bio.

If confirmed, she would become the only appointee of a Democratic president on the Western District court, where the other judges are appointees of Republican presidents. 

Her husband, Raymond, is an assistant U.S. attorney in the Western District. To avoid conflicts of interest, Beckering has informed the committee that her husband plans to leave the office within months, so he doesn't work with other attorneys who would be appearing before her.

Kumar and Beckering were part of Biden's fifth round of judicial nominees and his first picks for Michigan courts. 

mburke@detroitnews.com