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Senate confirms first lady of Wyoming as federal judge

By Paul Kane
Five months after her husband recommended her for the post, Wyoming first lady Nancy Freudenthal won Senate confirmation Wednesday as the first female federal judge in that state.

The confirmation, on a 96 to 1 vote, also marked a return to the Senate's historic acceptance of family members of well connected politicians winning appointments to the federal bench and posts inside administrations.

It stood in stark contrast to the questions Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) faced last year when he acknowledged that he had recommended his girlfriend, Melodee Hanes, then a senior member of his staff, to be the U.S. attorney for Montana. Ethics watchdogs assailed that recommendation, and Hanes soon withdrew her name from consideration and took a job at the Justice Department.

Last May, Gov. David Freudenthal (D), a supporter of President Obama's, referred his wife and two other potential candidates for the judgeship. He told Wyoming press that he grappled with the decision but ultimately decided his wife should not be "penalized for having married me." Obama nominated her in December.

"She has decades of experience as a public servant and a lawyer in private practice, and she currently serves as Wyoming's First Lady. Ms. Freudenthal has been rated 'well qualified' by the American Bar Association's standing committee," Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said during brief debate over three judicial nominees who were all confirmed.

After the vote, Leahy said there was no standard for politicians recommending their children or spouses to posts such as lifetime judicial appointments. "I don't know the answer. I haven't really thought about it," he said.

Since 1995, Freudenthal has served as a litigation partner for a law firm in Cheyenne, focusing on disputes with state agencies.

In her questionnaire to the Judiciary Committee, Freudenthal said she recused herself from one case involving an Exxon dispute with the state's revenue office over gas production after her husband became governor. She said she restricted herself from bringing in new clients that were "primarily focused on disputes involving [state] administrative agencies."

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who cast the lone dissenting vote, said he found it inappropriate that Freudenthal continued to lobby the state government and to represent clients with civil cases against state agencies after her husband became governor in early 2003. "I think that speaks to her ethics," he said.

Leahy noted that many children and spouses have won Senate confirmation in the past, with little to no fanfare. The wife of the late Sen. William Roth (R-Del.) served as a federal appellate court judge, on the same bench with Judge Marjorie Rendell, who won her lifetime appointment when her husband, now-Gov. Ed Rendell (D-Pa.), served as Philadelphia mayor. The late Strom Thurmond's son won easy confirmation to be U.S. attorney for South Carolina. David Bunning, son of Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), was confirmed as a federal judge in 2002 despite receiving a poor rating from the ABA.

"He's actually turned out to be a pretty good judge," Leahy said.

By Paul Kane  |  May 5, 2010; 6:16 PM ET
Categories:  44 The Obama Presidency  
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