Neomi Rao – Nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit

If the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court was explosive and controversial, the nomination of Neomi Rao to fill his seat on the D.C. Circuit promises to bring some fireworks of its own.  Rao, a scholar of Administrative Law, has already drawn fire for her writings in college, as well as her strong views on civil rights, executive power, and the administrative state.  As such, the confirmation fight over Rao, who would be the first South Asian woman on the federal appellate bench, is bound to leave some scars of its own.

Background

The daughter of Parsi (an Indian Zoroastrian community) doctors, Neomi Jehangir Rao was born in Detroit on March 22, 1973, and raised in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.  Rao graduated cum laude from Yale University in 1995 with a B.A.[1]  Rao then spent two years as a reporter for the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine originally edited by Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes.[2]

Rao then attended the University of Chicago Law School, graduating with a J.D. in 1999.  While in law school, Rao worked as a Law Clerk at the libertarian law firm the Institute of Justice and as a summer associate at Williams & Connolly LLP.[3]

After graduation, and a clerkship with Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Rao joined the Senate Judiciary Committee, working under then Chairman Orrin Hatch as Counsel for Nominations and Constitutional Law.[4]  In 2001, Rao secured a prestigious clerkship with Justice Clarence Thomas, clerking on the Supreme Court alongside future federal judges Gregg Costa,[5] Vince Chhabria,[6] Alison Nathan,[7] and Michelle Friedland.[8]

After her Supreme Court clerkship, Rao joined Clifford Chance in London as an Associate.  In 2005, she returned to Washington to work as Associate Counsel and Special Assistant to President George W. Bush.[9]  In 2006, she left to become a Professor at the George Mason University Law School (later renamed the Antonin Scalia Law School), where she is currently on leave.

Since 2017, Rao has worked as Administrator for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in the Trump Administration, overseeing regulations that emerge from the various cabinet agencies.

History of the Seat

Rao has been nominated for the seat vacated by now Justice Brett Kavanaugh.  Rao had started discussions with White House Counsel Don McGahn about serving on the D.C. Circuit in August 2018.[10]  Unlike other lower court nominees, Rao had a personal interview with President Trump on October 12, 2018.[11]  Rao was officially nominated on November 13, 2019, and renominated on January 23, 2019.

Political Activity

Rao has made a few political donations in her lifetime, all to Republicans.  In 2004, Rao donated $1000 to the Presidential Campaign of George Bush.[12]  Similarly, in 2008, she gave $500 to Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign, and in 2012, $750 to the Presidential Campaign of Mitt Romney, as well as $250 to Sen. Ted Cruz.[13]  Additionally, Rao has given $1000 to Jeb Bush’s campaign in 2015.[14]

Rao has also volunteered with Lawyers for McCain in 2008 and Lawyers for Romney in 2012.[15]

OIRA

By her own account, Rao has not litigated extensively in the United States.  However, this does not mean that she has no legal experience.  In addition to positions on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in the White House, and at Clifford Chance in London, Rao has served as the head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) since 2017.  OIRA is one of the most powerful governmental bodies as it reviews all the regulations that emerge from the various cabinet departments and oversees their implementations.  An OIRA head can thus, by slowing, speeding, or altering regulations, reshape administrative policy for the Administration.  Past OIRA heads, including Cass Sunstein, have had a significant role in directing administrative policies.

During her tenure as OIRA head, Rao has, by her own account, pursued a “regulatory freedom agenda.”[16]  She has bragged about having taken 176 deregulatory actions, including opening coastal areas in New England to scallop fishing, and having stalled 2253 regulatory actions.[17]  Rao also indicates her support for easing regulations governing self-driving cars and removing federal water regulations under the Clean Water Act.[18]

On the flip side, Rao’s tenure has attracted sharp criticism from watchdog groups, with Patrice Simms of Earthjustice arguing that Rao was “gutting…the Mercury Air Toxics Standards [which] save as many as 11,000 lives every year.”[19]  Simms also argued that Rao was ignoring her responsibilities to ensure that agencies complies with the law in their rulemaking and that most of the rules she approved went on to get struck down by federal judges.[20]

Scholarship

In her role on the faculty at George Mason since 2006, Rao has established herself as a thought leader in the conservative legal movement, advocating for the restrictions on administrative rulemaking, and fighting against the Obama Administration both on regulations and with judicial nominations.

Administrative Law

From 2015 to 2017, Rao served as Director and Founder for the Center for the Study of the Administrate State at George Mason University.  As such, Rao has written extensively on Administrative law, primarily in seeking to restrict the reach of administrative rulemaking.  In one article, Rao states that “by creating the modern administrative state, Congress has marginalized itself.”[21]  In another, Rao argues that Presidential removal authority is essential to ensure political control over independent agencies.[22]

Right to Dignity

In a 2011 article on the Volokh Conspiracy, Rao discusses the differences between government promotions of substantive dignity as opposed to intrinsic dignity.[23]  Specifically, in the article, Rao criticizes government restrictions supporting “substantive dignity,” giving the example of bans on the practice of dwarf tossing (a practice in which dwarves are thrown for sport).[24]  Rao suggests that such bans, alongside bans on the wearing of the burqa, actually hurt intrinsic dignity by denying humans the dignity of choice in their activities.[25]  She also extends these arguments to bans on prostitution or pornography, noting that the bans “represent[] a particular moral view of what dignity requires.”[26]

Rao’s position has been characterized by some as a “defense” of dwarf-tossing and has been criticized as such by Mother Jones Magazine.[27]

Sotomayor Nomination

In 2009, Rao testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee against the confirmation of then-Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court.[28]  In her testimony, Rao called Sotomayor an “accomplished nominee” but argued that Sotomayor had left open “the question of how a judge chooses to be faithful to the law.”[29]  Rao went on to state her own view of the role of a judge, as someone who “[decides] particular cases through an evenhanded application of the law.”[30]

College Writings

Rao’s writings as a college student have recently come under scrutiny for their occasionally inflammatory language and controversial positions.[31]  Some of her writings on race and affirmative action have been compared to those of Ryan Bounds, whose nomination was ultimately derailed by them.[32]  For example, in one article, Rao criticizes “multiculturalists” for seeking to “separate and classify everyone according to race, gender, and sexual orientation.”[33]  In another piece, Rao decries affirmative action as the “anointed dragon of liberal excess.”[34]  In an article, Rao states that “homosexuals want to redefine marriage and parenthood” and criticizes a Yale magazine for including “pornographic pictures of homosexual couplings.”[35]

Additionally, Rao has been accused on victim-blaming for a piece she wrote on the role of alcohol in date rape.[36]  In the article, Rao comments on the case of a woman who accused a fellow student of sexually assaulting her while she was drunk.[37]  In the piece, Rao notes:

“Unless someone made her drinks undetectably strong or forced them down her throat, a woman, like a man, decides when and how much to drink.  And if she drinks to the point where she can no longer choose, well, getting to that point was part of her choice.”[38]

After initially standing by her statements as “intentionally provocative,” Rao backed down somewhat in her confirmation hearing and suggested that she had matured since her college days.[39]

Overall Assessment

Despite her history making nomination and her obvious academic credentials, Neomi Rao is a controversial nominee.  As tempting as it is to leave the analysis at that, it is worth digging deeper to highlight some of the reasons this is so.

First, Rao’s tenure at OIRA and her prior scholarship are strongly critical of administrative rulemaking.  This is welcome to many conservatives who criticize the “administrative state” as an extraconstitutional behemoth.  However, for those who believe that their air, water, health, welfare, and natural resources are protected by such rulemakings, Rao’s strong views are a cause for concern.  Thus, this is a flashpoint of controversy.

Second, Rao is a strong libertarian who has sharply criticized dignity-based rulemaking as well as affirmative action, multiculturalism, and LGBT advocacy.  This is another flashpoint.

Third, Rao’s college writings have drawn particular fire at a time when consent is discussed strongly.  The fact that she is replacing Kavanaugh, whose nomination was dogged by accusations of sexual assault, is sure to add fuel to the fire.

Finally, Rao is being tapped for the second highest court in the United States, one that, unlike the Supreme Court, leans liberal.  Rao is sure to add a fiercely conservative voice to the DC Circuit, which is the tribunal which hears most challenges to administrative rulemaking.

Add in all these factors and you have a recipe for an explosive mix.  Expect Democrats to strongly criticize Rao and Republicans to equally strongly support her.  Given the Republican majority, her confirmation is therefore expected, but, as the Ryan Bounds case has proven, nothing can be taken for granted.


[1] See Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 116th Cong., Neomi J. Rao: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[2] Id. at 2.

[3] See id.

[4] Id.

[5] Costa clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

[6] Chhabria clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer.

[7] Nathan clerked for Justice John Paul Stevens.

[8] Friedland clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

[9] Id.

[10] See id. at 48-49.

[11] See id.

[13] See id.

[14] Id.

[15] See Rao, supra n. 1 at 35.

[16] See Office of Management of Budget, The 2018 Regulatory Reform Report: Cutting the Red Tape; Unleashing Economic Freedom (available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/2018-Unified-Agenda-Cutting-the-Red-Tape.pdf).

[17] See id. 

[18] See id.

[19] Patrice L. Simms, A Lesson in Failure: OIRA, Neomi Rao, and Deregulation At Any Cost, American Constitution Society, ACSBlog, Feb. 4, 2019, https://www.acslaw.org/acsblog/a-lesson-in-failure-oira-neomi-rao-and-deregulation-at-any-cost/.  

[20] See id.

[21] Neomi Rao, Why Congress Matters: The Collective Congress in the Structural Constitution, 70 Fl. L. Rev. 1, 3 (2018).

[22] Neomi Rao, Removal: Necessary and Sufficient for Presidential Control, 65 Ala. L. Rev. 1205 (2014).

[23] Neomi Rao, Substantive Dignity – Dwarf-Throwing, Burqa Bans, and Welfare Rights, Volokh Conspiracy, May 18, 2011, http://volokh.com/2011/05/18/substantive-dignity-dwarf-throwing-burqa-bans-and-welfare-rights/.  

[24] See id.

[25] See id.

[26] Id.

[27] See Stephanie Mencimer, Trump’s Nominee to Replace Kavanaugh is a Staunch Defender of Dwarf-Tossing, Mother Jones, Nov. 16, 2018, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2018/11/neomi-rao-dwarf-tossing-kavanaugh-replacement/.  

[28] Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000).

[29] Neomi Rao, Testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Transcript, July 16, 2009 (available at https://www.c-span.org/video/?287762-106/sotomayor-confirmation-hearing-day-4-legal-scholars-panel).  

[30] Neomi Rao, Symposium: Legal Issues and Sociolegal Consequences of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines: How Apprendi Affects Institutional Allocations of Power, 87 Iowa L. Rev. 465, 470-74 (January 2002).

[31] See, e.g., Zoe Tillman, Trump’s DC Circuit Nominee – And Reported Supreme Court Contender – Wrote Inflammatory Op-Eds in College, BuzzFeed News, Jan. 14, 2019, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/zoetillman/neomi-rao-nomination-college-writings-court-appeals.   

[32] See id.

[33] Neomi M. Rao, How the Diversity Game is Played, Wash. Times, July 17, 1994, https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/5684162/7-17-94-Rao-How-the-Diversity-Game-Is-Played.pdf.   

[34] Neomi Rao, One Writer’s Battles, Weekly Standard, Nov. 10, 1996, https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/5684160/11-10-96-Rao-One-Writers-Battles.pdf.  

[35] See Rao, supra n. 37.

[36] Neomi Rao, Shades of Gray, The Yale Herald, Oct. 14, 1994, https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/5684161/10-14-94-Rao-Shades-of-Gray.pdf.  

[37] See id.

[38] See id.

[39] Zoe Tillman, Trump’s DC Circuit Nominee Neomi Rao Distanced Herself From Some of Her Inflammatory College Writings, Buzzfeed News, Feb. 5, 2009, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/zoetillman/neomi-rao-opeds-date-rape-trump-dc-circuit-nominee.  

[40]  Neomi Rao & Richard A. Biershbach, Integrating Remorse and Apology into Criminal Procedure, 114 Yale L.J. 85 (October 2004).

[41] Id. at 144-45.

[42] Neomi Rao, Mercy and Clemency: Forgiveness in Criminal Procedure, 4 Ohio St. J. Crim. L. 329 (Spring 2007).  

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