Senate confirms two Michigan judges, Kumar and Beckering, to federal bench

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The U.S. Senate late Friday confirmed two Michigan judges nominated for the federal bench by President Joe Biden.

Senators voted 44-22 to approve Oakland County Circuit Court Chief Judge Shalina D. Kumar just after 11:20 p.m. and voted 45-25 earlier for Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Jane M. Beckering. Kumar will be the first federal judge of South Asian descent in Michigan.

Kumar and Beckering were part of a slate of 22 nominations that Senate Democrats pushed to get through the chamber Friday that also included other judgeships, ambassador nominations and posts with the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

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.

Biden in June tapped Kumar for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan and Beckering for a vacancy on Michigan's Western District bench. Both were unanimously rated "well qualified" by the American Bar Association. 

“Judge Kumar and Judge Beckering are two outstanding and highly qualified women," said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, in a statement. "Their confirmation is great news for Michigan."

Kumar, 50, of Birmingham serves as chief judge of the Oakland County Circuit Court, the second-largest trial court in Michigan, which has 20 judges, 400-plus employees and a $72 million annual budget.

She was appointed to the court in 2007, 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. Kumar also served as presiding judge of the Adult Treatment Court for five years, which aims to treat and divert defendants from jail. 

Beckering, 56, of Grand Rapids 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 Judiciary Committee.

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 will be the only appointee of a Democratic president on the Western District court, where the other judges are appointees of Republican presidents. 

“Judge Kumar is an accomplished jurist whose appointment breaks barriers as the first Michigander of South Asian descent to serve on the federal bench in our state. Judge Beckering is highly qualified and has extensive experience serving on the Michigan Court of Appeals and in private practice," said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township. "I know both women will serve the people of Michigan and our nation well."

In October, Kumar and Beckering received the support of Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well as Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Thom Tillis of North Carolina to advance out of the panel.  

At their hearing this fall, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa noted 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," said Grassley, who voted against both in committee. 

Beckering told the senators that the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct explicitly provides for 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 showed 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 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.

Kumar 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 earned her law degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1990 and her bachelor's degree from UM in 1987. She spent 17 years as a litigator in private practice and experience in multistate commercial and plaintiffs litigation, negligence, wrongful death and product liability cases.

Her husband, Raymond, is an assistant U.S. attorney in the Western District. To avoid conflicts of interest, Beckering had 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