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Senate panel advances two Michigan judges nominated by Biden for federal bench

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted to advance to the full Senate two Michigan judges nominated for the federal bench by President Joe Biden.

The panel voted 12-9 to separately approve the nominations of Oakland County Circuit Court Chief Judge Shalina D. Kumar and Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Jane M. Beckering. 

They received the support of Democrats on the committee, as well as Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.  

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.

Both nominees were unanimously rated "well qualified" by the American Bar Association.

Biden in June tapped Kumar for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan and selected Beckering for a vacancy on Michigan's Western District bench.

Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, on Thursday called Beckering an "experienced litigator with a proven record of judicial independence," highlighting her 17 years as a litigator in private practice and experience in multistate commercial and  plaintiffs litigation, negligence, wrongful death and product liability cases.

"Since her appointment to the Michigan Court of Appeals in 2007, she's shown that she understands the distinction between being a practitioner and a judge," Durbin said, noting she's presided over 4,070 cases that resulted in her issuing an opinion. 

Durbin also praised Kumar and her 14 years on the second largest trial court in Michigan, noting she has presided over 10,000 cases and more than 99 jury or bench trials.

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.

She has also "effectively managed the court's navigation of the COVID-19 pandemic," Durbin added. 

Prior to her time on the bench, Kumar was a litigator and tried 10 cases to verdict, judgment or final decision. 

Durbin was the only senator to speak about the Michigan judges at Thursday's meeting.

At their hearing earlier this month, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said 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 at the hearing. 

Grassley, the panel's ranking Republican, voted against both Beckering and Kumar on Thursday.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, had also questioned Beckering at her hearing, noting she gave the maximum donation to Biden's presidential campaign, has a record 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. 

Both Kumar and Beckering were initially appointed to their respective courts in Michigan by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, and later elected by Michigan voters. Both also attended the University of Michigan.

If confirmed by the full Senate, Kumar would be the first federal judge of South Asian descent in Michigan.

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

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

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

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

mburke@detroitnews.com