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Trump judicial pick expresses regret for college writings

During his confirmation hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Dianne Feinstein grilled Kenneth Lee over an article he wrote in college that said “9 out of 10 people with AIDS are gay or drug users.” In response, Lee said that his views had changed over time. | Zach Gibson/Getty Images

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03/13/2019 12:22 PM EDT

President Donald Trump’s judicial nominee Kenneth Lee expressed regret Wednesday for controversial college writings on AIDS in the LGBT community and sexual assault.

Trump nominated Lee to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in January, amid stiff objections from Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Kamala Harris.

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During his confirmation hearing, Feinstein grilled Lee over an article he wrote in college that said “9 out of 10 people with AIDS are gay or drug users.” In response, Lee said that his views had changed over time.

“I absolutely would not write that today,” Lee said. “I truly regret writing that … Looking at that now, 26 years later, I am just embarrassed by it.”

Neither Feinstein nor Harris returned “blue slips” for his nomination, a practice by which home-state senators typically get to weigh in on some of presidential nominees, but which has been largely rejected by the GOP.

Lee also faced questions from senators in both parties on his college writings about sexual assault.

During his time at Cornell, Lee defended a college professor accused of harassing four women and alleged that two of the women brought forward their allegations only after taking a course on human sexuality. In addition, he questioned why one of the women continued to work for the professor despite harassment allegations.

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“If a lecherous professor grabs a student’s breast, the last thing she would do is continue to accompany him on another trip … just so she can hold on to a part-time job,” Lee wrote at the time.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), one of two Republican women on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also inquired about Lee’s prior writings. Ernst, who revealed earlier this year that she was raped in college, similarly questioned another Trump judicial nominee, Neomi Rao, about her writings in college on sexual assault.

Lee said his views on sexual harassment while he was in college were limited and have evolved since.

“I think you have to take any allegations very, very seriously and I think that is something we didn’t do in the past,” Lee said, adding that when he wrote the article at the age of 19, he didn’t understand the power dynamics of the workplace and the need for people to stay at jobs despite mistreatment.

Lee said at the time he admired the professor he wrote about, but noted that in the wake of the #MeToo movement, “we learn that even people we trust and admire can commit these awful things.”

Although Democrats blasted Lee for not providing his early writings to the committee sooner, the nominee replied that many weren’t readily available on the internet.

Lee also came under scrutiny from Harris for an article he wrote that defended laws that prohibited individuals from voting if they’d been convicted of a crime. When asked whether he believed those laws have an unequal effect on African-Americans, Lee acknowledged that statistics “suggest there’s a disparate impact.” He added that he would follow court precedent for taking such inequality into account when making decisions.

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