Senate Confirms First Korean American Woman As U.S. Appeals Court Judge

Lucy Koh, 53, now has a lifetime seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

The Senate voted Monday night to confirm Lucy Koh to a lifetime seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, making her the first Korean American woman to ever serve as a federal appeals court judge.

The Senate confirmed Koh in a 50-45 vote. Every Democrat voted for her. Every Republican present voted against her. Five Republicans missed the vote. The full tally is here.

Koh, 53, has been a U.S. district judge in California since 2010. She previously worked as a judge on the Santa Clara County Superior Court in California and as a litigation partner at the law firm McDermott Will & Emery representing tech companies in patent, trade secret and commercial civil matters. She was also assistant U.S. attorney in the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California from 1997 to 2000.

For some context on the significance of Koh’s presence on the federal bench, there have been a total of 806 federal appeals court judges since the nation’s current system of appeals courts was formed in 1891, according to Federal Judicial Center data. Koh is the only Korean American woman in the mix.

With Koh’s confirmation, President Joe Biden has now confirmed 10 appeals court judges and 29 lifetime federal judges. He’s confirmed more judges than decades of past presidents had by this point in their first year in office.

There are a couple of reasons why Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) are moving so fast to do this: They know they may only have two years to get Biden’s preferred picks through if Republicans win control of the Senate in November 2022. They also want to offset the homogenous and massive number of judges confirmed by President Donald Trump.

Biden has made diversity a driving factor in his judicial picks, both in terms of demographic factors like race and gender as well as in professional backgrounds. The federal bench is almost entirely made up of white, male judges with backgrounds as corporate lawyers and prosecutors. Biden’s court picks have included public defenders, civil rights lawyers and voting rights attorneys, as well as historic picks including Native American women, Black women and Muslim Americans.

On Tuesday, Schumer vowed to keep making judicial confirmations a priority.

“We are going to keep working in the months ahead,” he said on the Senate floor. “Today, [lifetime] Article III judges are still overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly from big law firms or prosecutorial backgrounds. Many of these individuals have served admirably on the bench, but we hope the trailblazers of today can be closer to the norm of tomorrow: we want our courts to include more women, more diverse candidates – both demographically and professionally – and more judges who come from unique walks of life.”

The Senate is already scheduled to vote on two more judicial nominees this week. One of them, Jennifer Sung, who is Chinese American, is also up for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. If confirmed, she, like Koh, will be one of very few Asian Americans to sit on the federal judiciary.

Lucy Koh is sworn in prior to testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oct. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
Lucy Koh is sworn in prior to testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oct. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
Win McNamee via Getty Images

During her October confirmation hearing, Koh, who was born in Washington, D.C., told a story about her mother’s escape from North Korea in 1946. She also described the poverty she witnessed growing up in Mississippi in the 1970s.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the top Republican on the committee, responded by telling Koh that her Korean background reminds him of his daughter-in-law and saying that Koreans have “a hard work ethic” and “can make a lot out of nothing.”

“So I congratulate you and your people,” Grassley told Koh.

His comments drew criticism from Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who is Chinese American and chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

“Even if you think you’re being complimentary, assigning any character trait to an entire community is the definition of prejudice,” Chu told HuffPost at the time. “Treating all members of a group as the same invites mistreatment when one person can be held accountable for the actions of someone else. It may not be the same incitement to violence seen in other slurs, but it is harmful nonetheless.”

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