Dorsey survives whiff of scandal to become federal judge in Nevada

WASHINGTON — Las Vegas attorney Jennifer Dorsey survived a whiff of scandal and won confirmation Tuesday to become a federal judge in Nevada.

Senators voted 54-41 to install Dorsey to the U.S. District Court, a lifetime post. The vote fell along party lines, with Democrats supporting her and Republicans voting against her, with one exception.

“I am very impressed with her dedication to the state of Nevada, her community and the legal profession,” said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who proposed Dorsey for the post. He said she “will make an outstanding federal judge for Nevada.”

But Dorsey, a native Las Vegan, drew substantial opposition, including from Sen. Dean Heller, a fellow Nevadan.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, raised questions about her experience, and said he feared she will be an “activist” judge, based on an essay she wrote in law school praising the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling in Roe v. Wade.

Grassley, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also said he remained concerned about questionable campaign contributions made by Dorsey’s law partners while she was being considered for the judgeship, an issue that contributed to the long delay in considering her for the post.

“We have not received a full explanation of what happened,” Grassley said, adding the episode threatened to erode public confidence in the courts.

As Dorsey was being vetted by Reid for the job in spring 2012, two senior partners at her Las Vegas law firm, Kemp, Jones & Coulthard, gave $150,000 to the Senate Majority PAC, a Reid-linked organization run by former advisers to elect Democrats to the U.S. Senate. Dorsey’s name was advanced to the White House a month later.

Reid and the law firm denied any impropriety. Questioned by Grassley during Senate review of her nomination, Dorsey said she had been unaware of the donations.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was the only Republican voting for Dorsey. Her office did not comment afterward on her vote.

Dorsey was nominated by President Barack Obama in September but her confirmation temporarily was frozen by Heller, who remained silent for months but ultimately said he was unsatisfied with her selection. He voted against her, while Reid voted for her.

Heller said in a statement Tuesday he spoke with Dorsey early in the confirmation process, and was hopeful that questions about the campaign donations would be clarified. In the end, he said he “remained uncomfortable” with the timing of the contributions made by Will Kemp and J. Randall Jones, and their amount, which was larger than others made by the partners.

Dorsey, 42, was unavailable for comment Tuesday, according to a woman who answered the phone in her office. Dorsey told senators she would recuse herself from cases involving Kemp, Jones and Coulthard “for at least several years.”

Dorsey’s performance as a federal judge will determine whether the controversy surrounding her nomination will become a cloud or will dissipate, according to Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

“It depends on how she does,” Tobias said.” “If people feel she’s doing a good job then it may all go away.”

Dorsey, 42, is a Las Vegas native who graduated from Chaparral High School, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Pepperdine University School of Law. She became a partner at Kemp, Jones & Coulthard in 2004, where she specialized in complex civil litigation.

The current salary for a federal district judge is $174,000.

Dorsey was approved by the Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line 10-8 vote in May, signaling the final vote would be partisan as well. While Republicans said the appearance of conflict might undermine public confidence, Democrats said it would not be fair to hold Dorsey accountable for the actions of her partners.

Dorsey’s confirmation leaves one vacancy on the seven-judge Nevada district that for months was three judges short until U.S. District Judge Andrew Gordon was installed in March.

On Monday, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts listed the remaining Nevada vacancy as a “judicial emergency” because it has been open for more than 18 months, coupled with an adjusted workload in the district of 545 cases per judge.

Reid said Tuesday he interviewed federal judge candidates while he was in Las Vegas last week. A source said there were “more than two.”

Reid’s previous choice, Clark County District Judge Elissa Cadish, was forced to step aside in March after being blocked by Heller following a controversy over her views on gun rights.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.