clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Neomi Rao could take Brett Kavanaugh’s old DC Circuit seat. She’s under scrutiny for her views on sexual assault.

“If she drinks to the point where she can no longer choose, well, getting to that point was a part of her choice,” Rao once wrote.

Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Nomination Hearing For Neomi Rao To Be U.S. Circuit Judge For D.C. Circuit.
Neomi Rao, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the District of Columbia Circuit, testifies on Capitol Hill on February 5, 2019.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

A nominee President Donald Trump would like to replace Brett Kavanaugh on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals once said that “a good way to avoid a potential date rape is to stay reasonably sober.” She’s also previously argued that “multiculturalists ... seek to undermine American culture.”

Needless to say, her record didn’t go over well with Senate Democrats during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Neomi Rao, the nominee in question, is Trump’s current regulatory czar. Senators pressed her about opinion columns she wrote on sexual assault and race while she was an undergraduate at Yale University in the 1990s, writings first highlighted by BuzzFeed News’s Zoe Tillman.

“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.

In response to the questions she fielded, Rao argued Tuesday that she had also emphasized that rape is a “terrible crime” and reiterated that “no one should blame a victim.” She repeatedly said she didn’t agree with the views she espoused in college, dubbing them “cringeworthy.”

Still, she appeared to maintain her larger point about sexual assault, saying, “I tried to make the commonsense observation that women can take certain steps to make sure they’re not a victim.”

That thinking puts the onus of preventing sexual assault on victims, an idea that Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Joni Ernst (R-IA) pressed her on.

“We have to change the culture of sexual violence,” said Ernst, who recently spoke publicly about her experiences as a victim of sexual assault, becoming one of the highest-profile Republicans to do so. “Young women need to feel comfortable sharing the experiences they’ve endured.”

Republicans argued that writings from Rao’s college days should hold less weight given the time that’s passed. But Harris noted that Rao’s recent actions as a Trump administration official could hurt sexual assault victims as well.

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.

During the hearing, Rao was also asked about her college writings on race and comments she made characterizing sexual and racial oppression as a “myth,” a position she attributed to being too “idealistic” as an undergraduate.

Rao’s hearing, which was overwhelmingly focused on her stances on sexual assault, comes in the wake of Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, during which multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct and assault. Kavanaugh has denied all these allegations.

There were many echoes of the Kavanaugh fight on Tuesday, including several questions about how seriously a nominee’s past writings should be considered in this process.

“Since Judge Kavanaugh’s hearing, when we were taking a magnifying glass to his high school yearbook, that seems to be the way things go around here now ... to criticize people for maybe some of their youthful indiscretions or opinions they expressed back then that are not particularly politically correct today,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).

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 would be the first South Asian American woman to sit on the DC Circuit if her nomination is confirmed. Rao is also widely seen as a rising star among conservatives and a possible contender for a potential Supreme Court seat.

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.

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.”

On Tuesday, Rao refused to recuse herself from cases that might involve Trump administration rules that she oversaw, however.

Ahead of 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.

Given the Republican majority in the Senate, Rao will likely be confirmed, though Democrats have succeeded in sinking controversial nominees in the past, including Ryan Bounds and Thomas Farr.

If the Tuesday confirmation hearing was any indication, it’s clear they’re prepared to mount a vigorous opposition.

Correction: This piece previously stated that Rao would be the first South Asian American to sit on the DC Circuit if she was confirmed. She is the first South Asian American woman.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.