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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Nomination of Spokane County judge to federal bench advances to full Senate vote after Feinstein’s return

Charnelle Bjelkengren, a Spokane County Superior Court judge nominated by President Joe Biden to fill a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, speaks Jan. 25 at her confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

WASHINGTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday advanced the nomination of a Spokane County Superior Court judge to the federal bench after the return of an ailing senator whose long absence from Congress had delayed the move.

Judge Charnelle Bjelkengren’s nomination to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington was approved by a vote of 11-10. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, an 89-year-old California Democrat who returned to the Capitol on Wednesday after an illness had kept her home since February, provided the decisive vote.

After months of delays, Jacob Rooksby, dean of Gonzaga University’s law school, is thrilled to see Bjelkengren’s nomination moving forward, despite what he calls unfair treatment during her confirmation hearing and Thursday’s committee hearing.

“The fact of the matter is, she’s more than qualified for this position and she should be confirmed, and we will all be better for it in the Eastern Washington community and our legal community,” Rooksby said.

Bjelkengren’s nomination was at the center of an unusually dramatic committee meeting, which began with Feinstein absent despite returning to the Capitol in a wheelchair a day earlier. When the California senator finally did arrive – to a standing ovation from her colleagues – Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah spoke against the Spokane County judge’s appointment because of responses she gave during her confirmation hearing in January.

Bjelkengren couldn’t answer when Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., asked her to explain Article II of the Constitution, which defines the powers of the presidency, and Article V, which lays out the process for amending the nation’s foundational document. Kennedy also asked her to define the concept of “purposivism,” a judicial philosophy that aims to interpret a law’s original purpose rather than its literal meaning.

In her defense, the panel’s Democratic chairman, Dick Durbin of Illinois, downplayed the relevance of those questions and suggested many of the senators on the committee couldn’t answer them. But on Thursday, Lee argued that Bjelkengren’s responses suggested she was unqualified for the federal court job.

“We’re not just being petty here in raising these concerns,” Lee said. “This will have real-world implications, real implications that can be very painful, that can be very devastating. Most people don’t want their case handled, tried, adjudicated by an inexperienced judge any more than they would want to get a root canal performed by someone who doesn’t know how to practice dentistry.”

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who specializes in the federal judiciary, said Lee’s claim speaks to how partisan the judicial confirmation process has become.

“That’s a pretty sweeping indictment,” Tobias said, because Bjelkengren has been a judge since 2019. During Thursday’s meeting, Durbin pointed out that she has presided over 130 jury and bench trials as a superior court judge.

Bjelkengren’s nomination now moves to the Senate floor, where Democrats hold a narrow 51-49 majority. Tobias said there has been no indication that Democrats will give up on her confirmation process, although it is unclear when the final vote will occur.

Spokesman-Review Reporter Emma Epperly contributed to this story.