Neomi Rao, nominated to succeed Brett M. Kavanaugh, quizzed on “date rape” at hearing

Senators in both parties pressed Neomi Rao — President Trump’s nominee to replace Brett M. Kavanaugh on the federal appeals court in Washington — about her past controversial writings, including about victims of date rape.

Rao, an advocate for broad presidential power, spent more than a decade as a law professor before she joined the Trump administration in 2017 as the White House’s regulatory czar.

Trump tapped Rao in November to succeed Kavanaugh, who served a dozen years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit before his elevation to the Supreme Court. Her nomination comes as Trump has installed a record number of appeals court judges across the country — more than any other president two years into a term. The Judiciary Committee’s new chairman, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), is moving quickly to confirm additional judges.

Rao, 45, faces opposition from civil rights groups and Democratic senators concerned about her work to roll back government regulations and about provocative columns she wrote as a college student.

She also encountered resistance last week from Republican Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa), who recently disclosed that she had been sexually assaulted while in college. Rao’s writings from the 1990s on date rape “do give me pause,” Ernst said during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

The senator said she is concerned about the message Rao’s columns send to young women “about who is to blame” and has not decided whether to back Rao’s nomination. “I really want to know more,” Ernst said in an interview.

Rao told senators that she cringes “at some of the language I used” in columns she wrote as an undergraduate at Yale. “I like to think I’ve matured as a thinker, writer and a person,” she said. And Rao emphasized that “nobody should blame the victim.”

But questions about Rao’s early writing, rather than the court’s docket, dominated the discussion Tuesday. In a 1994 column, Rao wrote: “It has always seemed self-evident to me that even if I drank a lot, I would still be responsible for my actions. A man who rapes a drunk girl should be prosecuted. At the same time, a good way to avoid a potential date rape is to stay reasonably sober.”

Rao said at the hearing that her suggestion about women and alcohol was meant as a “common-sense observation” about “actions women can take to be less likely to become victims.”

Rao was rated “well qualified” by the American Bar Association this week, and Republican senators defended her record. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) noted that she was unequivocal in the 1990s — and now — that anyone who commits a crime of violence should be prosecuted. Her suggestion that college students avoid excessive drinking, he said, is good advice, and he intends to give it to his own children.

More than a dozen people, mostly young women, lined up outside the committee room Tuesday wearing black T-shirts with quotes from Rao’s column on date rape and the message #RejectRao.

The D.C. Circuit is often referred to as the nation’s second-highest court because it reviews high-profile cases involving government regulations and separation-of-powers issues, and because it has been something of a pipeline to the Supreme Court. Four current justices previously served on the D.C. Circuit.

In recent years, the appeals court has ruled on cases involving gun-control laws, the Trump administration’s restrictions on transgender troops and the use of military commissions to prosecute terrorism suspects.

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