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CT’s Sarah Russell gets committee nod for federal judgeship

Sarah Russell, a professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law, has been nominated to serve on the U.S. District Court in Connecticut.
Quinnipiac University
Sarah Russell, a professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law, has been nominated to serve on the U.S. District Court in Connecticut.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved Sarah Russell’s nomination to sit on the U.S. District Court in Connecticut after facing additional GOP pushback to a past letter she signed about incarceration during the pandemic.

Russell’s nomination advanced in an 11-10 vote along party lines and now awaits a vote on confirmation before the full Senate.

She has taught as a Quinnipiac University law school professor since 2011 and serves as the director of the school’s Legal Clinic that works on juvenile sentencing and parole issues.

President Joe Biden tapped Russell for the federal bench in October, and a month later, the Judiciary Committee approved her nomination. But because the Senate did not act to confirm her before the weeks-long holiday recess, Biden needed to renominate her, and lawmakers had to start the process over again, under Senate rules.

Prior to Thursday’s hearing, Russell faced pushback from GOP senators for signing a letter in 2020 that called on Gov. Ned Lamont to “immediately release, to the maximum extent possible, people incarcerated pre-trial and post-conviction” as well as to place a moratorium on those newly admitted to prisons and jails and to protect the health of those who would remain incarcerated.

The letter, which was signed by more than 1,000 people and organizations, argued that prisons and jails “are detrimental to public health and human rights and disproportionately harm marginalized communities,” raising concerns in particular about how COVID-19 infections would affect large populations in prisons.

Following her nomination, Russell submitted thousands of documents and information to the Judiciary Committee but did not disclose the letter, which she later called an “oversight.” She has since said that it does “not accurately reflect my views” and was “overly broad.”

But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, again spoke out about her involvement in the letter, calling its contents “extreme.” He argued that it did not make distinctions about who would have been released under this request and made no mention of non-violent offenders.

“This is not mainstream. This is extreme, and yet this is who President Biden has nominated and this is who Senate Democrats … line up and vote for,” Cruz said. “That’s what she signed, and that’s not a position that any reasonable person would want to give her the power to execute on what she advocated.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., came to her defense, arguing that the criticisms from Cruz and other Republicans do not “detract from her qualifications” and that she has already assured the committee that it would not affect how she deals with sentencing as a federal judge.

“There’s nothing new here. This committee has already heard these allegations and more. This nominee is extraordinarily well-qualified as a scholar, a litigator, a teacher over decades, and that’s the reason why the people of Connecticut do strongly support her nomination,” Blumenthal said. “Sarah Russell has disavowed the views in it.”

“She has said most importantly to this committee that none of those views would impact her sentencing of defendants or any other actions she would take on the bench,” he added.

If confirmed, Russell, who previously served as a federal public defender, would fill the vacancy left by Judge Sarah Merriam, who was confirmed in September 2022 to sit on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court.

A civil rights group supportive of her nomination also defended Russell and a number of other federal judicial nominees who advanced on Thursday, calling for a quick confirmation process.

“We denounce the egregious, offensive and unfounded assertions made today about some of these nominees. They have each throughout their careers demonstrated a sincere dedication to civil and human rights that our federal courts need, and they will be tremendous fair-minded judges,” Lena Zwarensteyn, senior director of the fair courts program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said. “Time is of the essence, and it is critically important that the Senate move to confirm these nominees quickly.”

The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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