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Senate panel advances nominee rated 'not qualified' by American Bar Association

CNN logo CNN 10/11/2018 By Clare Foran, CNN
Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, walks through the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, September 18. © Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, walks through the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, September 18.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday advanced a slate of judicial nominees to the floor for a vote, including Jonathan Kobes to be a US Circuit Judge for the Eighth Circuit, despite the fact that he was rated "not qualified" to serve on the circuit court by the American Bar Association.

The nomination was approved by the committee by an 11-10 vote.

Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii criticized the move, saying after the vote that the White House had "nominated someone profoundly unfit to serve for a lifetime on the circuit court, but who will nonetheless be confirmed basically on a party line vote."

Controversy over the nomination marks the latest partisan clash over President Donald Trump's judicial picks. It comes less than a week after Senate Republicans successfully confirmed Brett Kavanaugh to be the newest Supreme Court Justice over Democratic opposition and after he vehemently denied sexual assault allegations leveled against him by Christine Blasey Ford. Kavanaugh was confirmed with 50 "yes" votes -- the fewest for any Supreme Court justice in the modern era.

In his opening remarks, Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, defended Kobes, who works as a general counsel for Republican Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota and saying that the panel had "received numerous letters of support" in favor of his confirmation from the state's "legal community, including South Dakota's attorney general."

Grassley accused the ABA of "politicizing" the nomination and criticized its methodology.

Natalie Krings, a spokesperson for Rounds, also defended Kobes in a statement, saying that his "qualifications to be a circuit judge speak for themselves."

"The ABA's use of limited criteria when assessing nominees is well known," Krings said. "Jon's qualifications to be a circuit judge speak for themselves. As a practicing attorney for nearly two decades, Jon has amassed an impressive resume that includes service in all three branches of the federal government, as a litigator on behalf of both plaintiffs and defendants in court and in both criminal and civil cases."

She added, "There are few with as wide a range of experience and as academically qualified as Jon. He demonstrated as such during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee."

In September, the chair of the ABA's standing committee on the federal judiciary wrote in a letter to Grassley and the panel's top Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein that the committee had rated Kobes "not qualified" to serve on the appeals court for the Eighth Circuit. The letter came after Trump announced the nomination in June.

"The committee believes that Mr. Kobes has neither the requisite experience nor evidence of his ability to fulfill the scholarly writing required of a United States Circuit Court Judge," the letter said.

It went on to say, "The Standing Committee had difficulty analyzing Mr. Kobes' professional competence because he was unable to provide sufficient writing samples of the caliber required to satisfy Committee members that he was capable of doing the work of a United States Circuit Court judge."

In arguing in support of the nominee during Thursday's hearing, Grassley pointed out that the ABA said in its letter that it did not have "any question about Mr. Kobes' integrity or temperament," issues that loomed large in the end for Kavanaugh.

The letter also stated that Kobes is "a very accomplished, competent and capable person," but said that "his career path has not resulted in sufficient evidence of a developed ability to do the written work of a United States Circuit Court Judge."

The judiciary committee also moved on Thursday to hold over the nomination of another judicial nominee -- John O'Connor -- who was rated as "not qualified" by the ABA.

According to a letter from the ABA to the Judiciary Committee, a review of O'Connor, who has been nominated to be United States District Judge for the Northern, Eastern and Western Districts of Oklahoma, "revealed several instances of ethical concerns, including candor with the court, evidence of overbilling of clients ... and improper contact with adverse parties in litigation."

O'Connor did not immediately return CNN's request for comment.

In August, however, Republican Sens. Jim Inhofe and James Lankford, both of Oklahoma, criticized the ABA's rating of O'Connor.

"In his 37 years of practice, John O'Connor has been known by all to be an attorney of the highest competence, honesty and integrity. He has received the highest possible ethical and legal rating from his peers during his decades of practice, and has been recognized for his continued service to community and civic organizations," Inhofe said at the time.

CNN's Ariane de Vogue and Tammy Kupperman contributed to this report.

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