Questions continue about contributions by judge nominee's law partners

WASHINGTON — While disclosed publicly only last week, $150,000 in campaign contributions that have complicated Las Vegan Jennifer Dorsey’s bid for a federal judgeship have been far from a secret to key senators considering her nomination, officials said Wednesday.

Republican aides on the Senate Judiciary Committee turned up the donations made by two senior partners of Kemp, Jones & Coulthard during a routine background check after Dorsey, an attorney with the firm, was nominated last September to join the U.S. District Court as a Nevada judge.

Dorsey appeared before the committee for a confirmation hearing on April 24, but GOP senators chose not to address the donations in public. They sent her written questions on the issue.

The contributions became public Saturday with a Review-Journal report based on Federal Election Commission records.

The records show a partner in Dorsey’s firm, Will Kemp, made a $100,000 donation reported May 1, 2012, to Senate Majority PAC, established by former strategists to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., to help Democratic Senate candidates. Another partner, J. Randall Jones, donated $50,000 to the PAC, reported on May 14, 2012.

The donations came as Reid was considering Dorsey for a judgeship. The state’s senior senator sent his recommendation to the White House in June, and President Barack Obama nominated Dorsey in September.

A law expert called the donations “problematic,” saying it raises a perception the firm was trying to buy a judgeship.  Kemp has said there was no discussion linking donations to nominations.

Judiciary Committee sources said the matter is being handled cautiously because it involves reputations. Whether the nomination may run into trouble depends in part on Dorsey’s answers to written questions and how Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada and other Republicans react to them, they said.

Reid has called for Dorsey, 42, to be considered on her merits, which he has said are “sterling.”

The nation’s 678 district judges generally draw less scrutiny than higher court judges, and judicial nominees often are confirmed despite questions about political contributions.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has not commented on the nomination. He was not at Dorsey’s confirmation hearing.

“If this was something that was a disqualifying issue, the chairman would not have moved, with the consent of the minority, to arrange for her confirmation hearing,” a committee staff member said.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, questioned Dorsey about her experience, and about a Pepperdine University law review article she wrote in 1997.

Grassley told Dorsey he may have follow-up questions in writing.  A spokeswoman said Monday he planned to ask about her firm’s political contributions.

Democrats are questioning why Grassley held back on revealing the potential conflict, which they said would have allowed Dorsey to address it in public.

Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine said written questions “are much better suited for a more detailed response.”

Heller was reportedly among senators made aware of the Kemp and Jones contributions, but he has declined comment on the issue, as he has in regard to Dorsey’s nomination in general.

Heller, who clashed with Reid over an earlier nominee, has said he wanted Dorsey’s confirmation process to play out before talking about it. He didn’t attend Dorsey’s April 24 hearing.

Several judicial nominees have been confirmed despite entanglements over political finances.

■ U.S. District Judge Jack McConnell of Rhode Island, an Obama appointee, was confirmed in 2011 in a 50-44 vote despite criticism by conservatives that he and his wife had contributed almost $700,000 to Democrats since 1993.

■ District Judge Ronald Clark of Texas, an appointee of President George W. Bush, was confirmed in 2002 by voice vote. Democrats had noted he and his wife were frequent contributors to Republicans, having given more than $17,500 over the previous 10 years.

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