The Senate just confirmed Neomi Rao, a judicial nominee who was under scrutiny for her past writings on sexual assault, to fill the DC Circuit Court seat previously held by Brett Kavanaugh.
Rao, currently the Trump administration’s regulatory czar, is widely seen as a rising star in conservative legal circles and could be among those considered for the Supreme Court down the line. During her confirmation hearing in February, she was heavily questioned about some of her college articles about sexual assault, several of which appeared to blame the victims.
“If she drinks to the point where she can no longer choose, well, getting to that point was a part of her choice,” Rao wrote in one piece.
Rao’s comments were critiqued by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Sens. Joni Ernst (R-IA), who has spoken publicly about her own assault, and Kamala Harris (D-CA). Rao emphasized during her confirmation that “no one should blame a victim,” though she maintained that there were steps women could take to “make sure they’re not a victim.”
Given how dissatisfied multiple senators seemed with her responses, Rao ultimately wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee apologizing even further for her past writings. “No woman or man should be subject to sexual violence, regardless of the clothes they wear or how much alcohol they consumed,” she wrote. “I am sorry for anything in my college writings to the contrary.”
In addition to the concerns about her past writings, Rao also received some pushback from Republican Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), who was worried that she wasn’t anti-abortion enough in her stances. Following a meeting with her, however, he ultimately threw his support behind her nomination.
Who is Neomi Rao?
Rao, 45, has spent much of her career working on regulatory policy and is currently the administrator of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. She’s the daughter of Indian immigrants and is the first South Asian American woman to sit on the DC Circuit.
As the head of OIRA, she has had significant purview over how the Trump administration has tried to implement its regulatory reform agenda. OIRA is a little-known body within the Office of Management and Budget that has wide-ranging jurisdiction over how federal agencies implement their rules.
As Leif Fredrickson wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post, the office is one that few are aware of despite its expansive reach:
The office can effectively shape, delay and even nix critical regulations proposed by executive agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Rao, in her role as head of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, has supported the Trump administration’s rollback of Title IX protections for victims of sexual assault on college campuses. These rules would reduce the mandatory reporting requirements institutions currently face on the matter and require live hearings on sexual assault allegations where accusers could even be cross-examined by a representative of their attackers.
Democrats argue that Rao, as a head of this office, has played a major role in undoing regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Education Department. They also warned that she could theoretically decide on the merits of these regulations if she becomes a DC Circuit judge.
“The DC Circuit hears most challenges to federal regulations,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), a ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “If confirmed, Ms. Rao could be in a position to decide cases about many of the very regulations that she has personally worked on.”
Rao has previously refused to recuse herself from cases that might involve Trump administration rules that she oversaw, however.
Before her time with the Trump administration, Rao served as a law professor at George Mason University, where she founded the Center for the Study of the Administrative State. She has also worked as counsel for Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, as associate counsel for President George W. Bush, and as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
She’s the latest in a wave of conservative nominees that Republicans are trying to push through at a record pace.
Correction: This piece previously stated that Rao was the first South Asian American to sit on the DC Circuit. She is the first South Asian American woman.