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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County Judge Charnelle Bjelkengren will not be renominated to federal bench

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 at her confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee in January 2023. Bjelkengren has asked the U.S. president not to renominate her this year.

A Spokane County judge’s troubled nomination to a federal judgeship in 2022 by President Joe Biden will not be renewed.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Charnelle Bjelkengren asked not to be renominated, she said in a statement Tuesday.

“I asked the President not to renominate me due to the uncertainty of my confirmation, and in order to advance the important work of the federal judiciary,” she wrote. “My hope is for the swift confirmation of the next nominee.”

The nomination process was difficult for Bjelkengren after intense criticism from Republicans and long delays.

In her January 2023 confirmation hearing, Bjelkengren drew criticism when she failed to answer or skirted questions from Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy.

Kennedy asked her to explain Article II of the constitution, which defines the powers of the presidency, beyond simply appointing judges.

Bjelkengren also punted when asked to explain Article V of the Constitution, which lays out the process for amending the nation’s foundational document, and the concept of “purposivism,” a judicial philosophy that aims to interpret a law’s original purpose rather than its literal meaning.

“In my 12 years as an assistant attorney general, in my nine years serving as a judge, I was not faced with that precise question,” Bjelkengren told Kennedy. “We are the highest trial court in Washington state, so I’m frequently faced with issues that I’m not familiar with, and I thoroughly review the law, I research and apply the law to the facts presented to me.”

Her responses drew criticism from congressional Republicans and their media allies, who argued Bjelkengren was unqualified.

In a speech on the Senate floor Jan. 31, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said she had “flunked” questions on subjects that “high schoolers across America learn each year.”

Democrats, like Sen. Patty Murray, defended her, noting she was rated as “qualified” by the American Bar Association.

Bjelkengren became the first female African American judge in Spokane County when she was appointed to the bench by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2019.

Biden has made it clear he hopes to increase diversity on the largely white and male federal bench through his nominations.

Born in the small northern Minnesota city of Menahga, Bjelkengren attended Mankato State University, later renamed Minnesota State University, Mankato, and graduated in 1997. She received her law degree at Gonzaga University in 2000, during which time she said she fell in love with the Spokane community and decided to stay, she told The Spokesman-Review in 2019.

She went on to serve as a Washington state assistant attorney general starting in 2003, and as an administrative law judge in the Office of Administrative Hearings in Spokane Valley from 2013 to 2019.

Murray recommended Bjelkengren to Biden, who nominated her in September 2022.

A president having to renominate judges is a fairly new problem, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who specializes in the federal judiciary.

“It used to never happen, but it has been happening in recent years, especially as the process has become more and more partisan and politicized,” Tobias said.

The long delays in Bjelkengren’s confirmation were partly due to the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s extended absence over ongoing health issues. The Senate Judiciary Committee needed Feinstein’s vote to confirm judges.

In May, Feinstein returned and Bjelkengren advanced to a full Senate vote, which never came.

Tobias said the intense questioning, delays and now renominations serve no real purpose.

“It’s just really gratuitous, quite frankly,” he said. “It doesn’t really do anything except drive people away.”

Bjelkengren acknowledged the process was difficult.

“I care deeply about justice, Spokane County Superior Court, the people of Spokane County and Washington State,” she wrote. “In the last year and a half, while I navigated the nomination process, it was taxing on both a personal and professional level. I am eager to refocus all of my energy and efforts on the good work my colleagues and I do on a daily basis, in Spokane County.”

Five nominees were not included in the 18 resubmitted nominations Monday by the White House.

Following Congress’ adjournment, Biden must renominate a judge to fill the position to reinitiate the entire process.

Coleen Holland who was up for a federal judgeship in New York, withdrew her name like Bjelkengren, saying it was a personal decision, according to Reuters.

Tobias said the five former nominees who were not resubmitted likely would have been confirmed, had they continued in the process.

“If this group had persisted, they would get through, almost all of them,” he said.

Now that they have chosen not to continue, senators from those states will begin to vet other options before making a recommendation to Biden.

Murray confirmed in a statement Tuesday she would work to find a new nominee.

“Judge Bjelkengren asked not to be renominated, and Senator Murray will be working closely with the Biden Administration on the nomination process to quickly confirm a qualified judge for the Eastern District of Washington,” Naomi Savin, a spokesperson for Murray, wrote in an email late Tuesday afternoon.

Tobias expects the process to move quickly, with Biden determined to fill as many vacancies as possible.

A new nominee could be confirmed by the end of the year, Tobias said.