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Senate confirms first Korean American woman as federal appeals judge

Lucy Koh, a district judge from California, was confirmed Monday as one of President Joe Biden's four picks for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Lucy Koh, a nominee to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Oct. 6, 2021.
Lucy Koh, a nominee to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Oct. 6.Joy Holder / U.S. Senate via Reuters file

The Senate on Monday voted to confirm Lucy Koh to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, elevating the prominent judge despite Republican objections to a decision she wrote allowing California to restrict religious gatherings during the pandemic.

The Senate voted 50-45 to make Koh the first Korean American woman to serve on a federal appeals court. She has spent more than a decade as a district court judge in San Jose, California where she has presided over many of Silicon Valley’s biggest cases.

Koh, 53, is one of President Joe Biden’s 16 appellate nominees to date and one of four picks for the 9th Circuit, which hears appeals from Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

She was previously nominated by then-President Barack Obama to the 9th Circuit in 2016 but was never confirmed by the Republican-majority Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday said by week’s end, the Senate will have confirmed 11 of Biden’s appellate nominees and 20 district court picks, a majority of whom are women and more than half of whom are people of color.

“They bring sorely needed diversity to the bench,” Schumer said.

Schumer pledged to hold a vote this week on another 9th Circuit pick, Jennifer Sung, a Oregon state labor board member who has faced tough Republican opposition. Biden’s other two 9th Circuit nominees, Gabriel Sanchez and Holly Thomas, are pending.

Since becoming a district court judge in 2010, Koh has presided over several major lawsuits including class actions arising out of the massive data breaches at Yahoo! Inc in 2016 and smartphone patent litigation between Apple Inc and Samsung Electronics Co.

Before joining the federal bench, she had been a state court judge in California and a partner at McDermott Will & Emery.

During hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year, Republicans zeroed in on a ruling she issued in February that said California could ban small religious gatherings in homes in order to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The 9th Circuit upheld that decision, but the conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court in April overturned it, saying it was an improper curb on in-home religious services.

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri during an Oct. 18 hearing called Koh’s decision a “deeply troubling” affront to religious rights.

The Senate Judiciary Committee nonetheless advanced her nomination 13-9, and Schumer said she had over the course of 3,000 rulings showed she was “impartial.”