#RejectRao: South Asian activists revolt against D.C. circuit court nominee Neomi Rao

Administrator of White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Neomi Rao, center, is introduced during a Diwali ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House November 13, 2018 in Washington, D.C. President Donald Trump announced that he had nominated Rao to fill the seat vacated by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Neomi Rao, President Donald Trump’s nominee to the D.C. Court of Appeals, as expected, was put through the wringer by Democratic Senators on the Judiciary Committee at her confirmation hearings Feb. 5, about her past controversial writings and current actions on the rights of sexual assault survivors, gender and racial equity and the environment, but it was a Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, who posed some of the most probing questions about Rao’s perspective on victims of date rape.

Ernst, who recently disclosed she was raped by a former boyfriend, told Rao that she was disturbed by her provocative columns while a college student in the 1990s on date rape, saying it does “give me pause,” particularly regarding her apparent “blame the victim” contention, and indicated that she was undecided if she would vote to confirm Rao in what is expected to be a clear party line vote.

"I had a chance to review a number of your writings while you were in college. They do give me pause. Not just from my own personal experiences but regarding messages we send young women everywhere,” Ernst said.

In a 1994 column while an undergraduate at Yale, 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, clearly on the defensive at the hearing presided over by the new Judiciary chairman Lindsay Graham (R.-S.C.), said, "To be honest, looking back at some of those writings, I cringe at some of the language I used.”

“I like to think I’ve matured as a thinker, writer and a person,” she said, and added, “I certainly regret any implication of blaming the victim.”

“Nobody should blame the victim,” Rao emphasized, even as she tried to rationalize that her suggestions about women drinking too much and making themselves vulnerable was meant as “common sense observation” about “actions women can take to be less likely to become victims.” But she told Ernst that "I don't think I would express myself in the same way"

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

Earlier, on the eve of Rao’s confirmation hearings, broad coalition of mainstream and Indian-American progressives, led by longtime activist and author Deepa Iyer —founder and former executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) — have launched a concerted campaign to torpedo Neomi Rao’s lifetime appointment to the D.C. Court of Appeals.

In November, President Donald Trump nominated Rao, 45, currently the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) —who once clerked for conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — to fill the seat left vacant by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit Court, considered the nation’s second most important court.

The Senate Judiciary Committee did not take up the nomination before the 115th Congress adjourned last year and Trump re-nominated her and 50 others, including N. Nicholas Ranjan (to be the United States District judge for the Western District of Pennsylvania) for federal judgeships and their confirmation hearings are expected to begin this month under the new Committee chairman, Senator Lindsay Graham.

Iyer and the other activists in a teleconference on Feb. 1 and in interviews with India Abroad said that going by her writings during her college days and under her watch at OIRA as Trump’s key regulatory czar, Rao had considerably weakened public protections related to the environment, gender and racial equity and the rights of sexual assault survivors.

“Her writings during her college days and after,” Iyer noted, “provide alarming viewpoints on sexual assault survivors, date rape, multiculturalism and more.”

She emphasized that in particular, “there are many South Asians around the country who have raised concerns about Neomi Rao,” and argued, “as South Asians, we believe in the importance of a diverse judiciary, but Rao’s record is deeply alarming to us and we believe it disqualifies her from a lifetime federal appointment.”

Shiwali Patel, Senior Counsel, National Women’s Law Center, said, “I want to point out how disturbingly ironic it is that barely a few months after the country heard from Dr. Blasey Ford and grappled with Judge Kavanaugh’s sexual assault allegations, Neomi Rao — a rape apologist — could potentially fill his seat on the D.C. Circuit.

“It’s clear that one of the pillars of the Trump Administration’s legacy will be disregarding sexual assault survivors, and I’m worried that Neomi Rao could be its next accomplice,” she warned.

Patel said, “Neomi Rao has a troubling record on sexual assault, dating back to college that suggests she would be a dangerous judge who would dramatically weaken civil rights protections.

“In college, Rao attacked survivors of assault by indicating that women who are raped are to blame if they are drunk while it occurs. Rao said, and I quote, ‘if she drinks to the point where she can no longer choose, well getting to that point was part of her choice.’”

Patel charged that Rao “also promoted the false and extremely dangerous narrative that women make false rape accusations because they wish to avoid responsibility for engaging in sexual activity. She said, and I quote, ‘casual sex for women often leads to regret... this, in turn, can force women to run from their choices and actions.’

“As an attorney at the National Women’s Law Center who hears from survivors across the country all the time, I know first-hand how these kinds of comments deter survivors from speaking out and how pushing narratives that blame the victim deeply impact the ability for survivors to learn and thrive,” she argued, and added, “But Neomi Rao’s harmful record doesn’t end there. As head of OIRA, Rao played a significant role in the Trump Administration’s rollback of civil rights protections broadly.”

Patel said, “This includes Rao’s recent rubberstamping of the rollback of Title 9 protections for survivors of sexual violence in schools. This rollback would attempt to reduce liability for schools that fail to address sexual harassment adequately and create procedures that would deny survivors a fair process.”

Patel said: “As a South Asian woman who is an attorney and a mother, I understand and appreciate the significance of the first South Asian woman to serve on a federal appellate court, particularly the D.C. Circuit.”

“However, Rao does not stand for civil rights, she has made sweeping generalizations about individuals from marginalized backgrounds, and she has made incredibly harmful and dangerous statements about sexual assault survivors,” she said, and declared, “She is not the role model we need for our community, and certainly not one that I want for my daughter.”

Anirvan Chatterjee, an activist from the Bay Area, said Rao had now replaced Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on the #DesiWallOfShame as “the top name on the list of the most shameful South Asian American Trump appointees.”

The #DesiWallOfShame is a Twitter hashtag started after the 2016 election by South Asian American progressives, and Chatterjee said, “When our community puts people on the wall of shame, it’s our way of saying ‘this is not OK — this fundamentally goes against our community’s values.”

He said that Rao’s “writings have been shocking when she said that ‘the multiculturalists are not simply after political reform. Underneath their touchy-feely talk, they seek to undermine American culture.’

“That’s shocking. It’s beyond the pale,” Chatterjee said. “When Neomi Rao says that, that’s the most blatant, possible attack on our communities, on our cultures, our languages, our religions. attacked her aunties, uncles and friends, and all our diverse languages, cultures, and religions. And, she’s never apologized for it.”

Chatterjee said that “Neomi Rao is an embarrassment to South Asian communities across the United States, and it would be a shame for her to be given a lifetime judicial appointment, where she can keep endangering inclusion, civil rights, our health, our environment — all the deepest, fundamental values that our communities stand for.

That’s why we’re calling on our Senators to say no to Rao.”

Amit Narang, Regulatory Policy Advisor, Public Citizen, spoke of how OIRA under Rao has “shifted our environment and consumer protection roll back.”

He said although Public Citizen does not take positions on judicial nominations, “We have been deeply concerned with what we have seen Neomi Rao do in her time as the regulatory czar — she has had a hand in the most important deregulatory decisions and it basically been a deregulatory attack on public protections.”

Narang said, “These are the types of protections that hardworking Americans and families support and rely on a daily basis,” and added, “The deregulatory attack has not spared any community — it has been an attack on environment, on minorities, on women, on children, on immigrants.”

He argued that “time after time, we’ve seen her public remarks about the deregulatory agenda focus just on how much she is saving for big business and corporations, and almost ignoring as if it doesn’t exist, the environmental benefits to consumers, to workers — the regulations that protect the public.”

Dan Goldberg of the Alliance for Justice, endorsing the sentiments of the other activists, said Rao’s writings “on sexual assaults, LGBTQ rights, racial equity, and the environment are deeply troubling. They are offensive, they are vile.”

And, he asserted that “she has never disavowed her views and she has never claimed to have changed them. Just one year ago, she talked about how much she enjoyed expressing her views when she wrote them.”

Goldberg said, “You can absolutely connect the dots between those op-eds she wrote in her 20’s to policies she has imposed as head of OIRA. There’s no coincidence that she has advanced policies that harm our societies most vulnerable and we have no doubt that she would continue to do so if she is confirmed to what has been called the nation’s most powerful courts.”

He reiterated that “bottom line is that Rao’s views have not matured, she has not evolved. She is the same person who wrote harsh, narrow-minded things in her 20’s and now when she’s being nominated for the nation’s second most powerful court, those views are even more dangerous and will have even more of a negative impact on so many people around our country.”

Lena Zwarensteyn of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said that “Rao’s past is her prologue. While we have not heard anything from Rao to suggest that she denounces these writings, rather he subsequent record demonstrates continued hostility towards vital civil rights issues.” She said for “President Trump, hostility to civil rights is the prerequisite for the job.

“People in America deserve more, we deserve judges who will be fair and independent, Zwarensteyn said, and called for Senators “on and off the (Judiciary) Committee to carefully review and evaluate her full record.”

Earlier, Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference and former head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in the Obama administration on slammed the nomination of Rao.

Gupta said, “What we know of Neomi Rao’s record makes perfectly clear that she is unfit to serve as a fair and impartial judge,” and added, “Recently discovered writings by Raocontradict the foundational values upon which our country is built.

‘She has demonstrated hostility toward racial and gender equality, sexual assault survivors, LGBTQ rights. and the dire need to address climate change.”

Gupta said, “This should immediately disqualify her from a lifetime position on the federal bench. Senators must reject her nomination as part of their independent responsibility to protect civil and human rights for all.”

When questioned by India Abroad on how the progressives could convince the older generation of Indian-Americans and the Indian-American Republicans who have hailed President Trump’s nomination of Rao and would necessarily condemn the campaign to derail her confirmation by the Senate to a judgeship in the D.C. Circuit, often considered a stepping stone to the Supreme Court, Iyer said, “I would just say to our uncles and aunties to go back to values.

“What are the values our parents’ generation care about? They care about being able to live full lives as immigrants and communities of color in this country and to have their children and grandchildren also don’t have to hide who they are, and are seen as full people based on where we come from — the languages we speak, the faiths we practice and the like.”

Iyer argued that “Neomi Rao, in her writings and in her work has shown that she’s not actually interested in advocating for the rights of women of color, or the rights of immigrants, and the rights of communities of color who build the fabric of this country. She goes against those values that so many of our parents’ generation cares for.

“So, that’s what I would focus in on — look at the values and her record and don’t be swayed by the fact that she has an Indian name.”

Chatterjee said, moderate and even conservative Republicans in the South Asian community and the Indian American community should be aware that Rao “is not a typical conservative Republican. She goes much further in a way that directly attacks the community.”

“She’s so far out of the mainstream of even the conservative wing of the South Asian American community,” he said, and warned that “she is deeply dangerous to us and if she became a lifetime judge, it could only harm our community.”

Chatterjee said, “It’s really important that we understand that we are not just talking if she’s conservative or not — it goes much beyond that.”

He said he viewed Rao “as somebody who could potentially use her South Asian or Indian identity when it is useful but really be able to throw our community under the bus by attacking multiculturalism.”

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