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Committee questions Indiana judicial nominees

Michael W. Hoskins
February 11, 2010
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Indiana's three judicial nominees appeared before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee today to answer senators' questions nearly a month after they were tapped to fill openings in the state's federal courts.

Discussions regarding Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel nominee Dawn Johnsen have been delayed again. After two delays in the past 10 days, nominees Jon DeGuilio for the Northern District of Indiana, and Marion Superior Judge Tanya Walton Pratt and U.S. Magistrate Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson for the Southern District of Indiana joined three other nominees from different states in appearing before the committee in Washington, D.C.

This is the first step in the confirmation process, and this hearing preceded an Senate Judiciary executive business meeting where senators didn't have quorum to discuss the long-delayed nomination of Dawn Johnsen, who's been chosen to lead the Office of Legal Counsel. The next chance for that to happen will be following the weeklong President's Day break starting Monday. That time will also allow for senators to submit additional questions on the pending judicial nominations after today's discussion.

Following introductory remarks from Indiana's Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh and a brief introductory statement from each nominee, the Hoosier nominees only faced questions from interim committee chair Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who was the only member of the minority party to attend the hearing. Sessions emphasized that this nomination hearing is the only real opportunity the American people have to see the nominees and ask questions of them. So, he directed a handful of questions at each person while also referring to the nominees' public questionnaires that have been submitted and can be viewed at the Senate Judiciary Committee's Web site.

Receiving the fewest and least-specific questions was DeGuilio, who is legal counsel for Peoples Bank and has served as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Indiana and Lake County prosecutor. Generally, DeGuilio joined the other nominees in saying he was familiar with and would respect the federal criminal sentencing guidelines, as well as established precedent.

But the female jurists received specific questions from Sessions, who questioned their views and handling of criminal sentencing issues. Specifically, he referred to a time on the state court bench when Magistrate Magnus-Stinson asked to not be assigned to cases involving the death penalty. Magistrate Magnus-Stinson said she'd consulted the Indiana Judicial Qualifications Commission, which advised her then to not make any public statements about the issue and that advice still applies.

Sessions pressed the topic, saying it's an important issue about judicial activism and the committee should hear her views. "I am fully cognizant that the death penalty is the law of land, and I'm fully under oath to uphold it," she said in response. "I have never expressed such a view on the death penalty, and will continue to refrain from expressing views as it's an issue that may appear before me." Sessions questioned Judge Pratt about a case where she allowed a burglary convict to be transferred from state prison to a low-security facility over the prosecutor's objections, as allowed by state statute. The convict escaped and was convicted for his involvement in a murder.  

"That was a huge learning experience for me as a state court judge, and an example of the difficult decisions we have to make as judges," she said. "I do regret that, though you couldn't predict that would happen. This was a heartbreaking, horrible experience and it goes to show the huge impact our decisions have on the community." No timeline has been set for when the committee will vote on the judicial nominations.

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