A nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit shared a touching family story about the American Dream Wednesday, after a Democratic senator invoked the nominee's deceased father in an attempt shame him.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) introduced Kenneth Lee to the Senate Judiciary Committee, describing how Lee's father, Stan, had "passed away in 2010 after a battle with cancer. But I know how proud he is looking down on his son today-and for very good reason."
Lee, now a partner at Jenner & Block, graduated from Harvard Law School, clerked on the Fifth Circuit, and worked in the George W. Bush White House. He was born in South Korea and moved to the United States as a child with his family.
Cotton praised Lee and his family, saying they "embody the American Dream."
During the hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) caught the nominee off guard when he asked how he thought his father would have ruled on a landmark Supreme Court case. "What do you think your father would have said?" he asked.
After a moment of evident shock, Lee tried to address the senator's sudden question. "My father believed in equality," he said.
Blumenthal pressed Lee, but the nominee demurred. "I never talked constitutional issues with my dad."
Several minutes later, Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) (no relation to the nominee) took exception to Blumenthal's line of question. "I regretted a few minutes ago that one of my colleagues invoked the memory of your late father in connection with questions," he said. "I consider that inappropriate and would call on my colleague to apologize."
Senator Lee rejected the body invoking the dead "in an effort to shame, humiliate, embarrass, retaliate" against their loved ones.
Lee asked for the nominee to share a warmer memory germane to the committee's business. "As long as the name of your late father has been invoked, I wanted to invite you, if you're interested, to tell us a little bit about how your father informed your life, about how you became a better person as a result of his life and his example and his choices," he said.
The judicial nominee, visibly emotional, accepted.
"My father was my hero," he said. "He was the hardest working man. Whenever we faced difficulties, he always tried to uplift us all."
Lee's father was an engineer in South Korea, but he took work "fixing spray-paint machines" in the United States while Lee's mother trained as an acupuncturist.
Lee described an episode at Disneyland, in which the family's Korean food drew racist mockery from other park-goers. "Little kids started coming up, and some said it smelled. Others said it looked like feces, but used a slightly different word … When you're a kid, the smallest things seem like the world to you," he said.
Lee shared how he blamed his father for the experience and told him he wished he never decided to emigrate from Korea. "You never asked us if we wanted to come here, move to a new country," he remembered saying.
Lee described his father's reply: "I know it's tough for you, tough on your sisters, tough on me and your mom. I know it's tough here, but … you don't want to go back."
"Here in America, things are different," Lee recalled his father promising. "It doesn't matter that you're not white. It doesn't matter you weren't born here. It doesn't matter that our family doesn't have wealth or power. Everyone here is treated equally."
Lee told the senators that his father's love of country and belief in its promise animated his own judicial worldview. "My dad wasn't a lawyer. He never read the Federalist Papers," he said. "But he had a gut understanding of what makes our country and our Constitution so great, so powerful, and so unique in the world. I‘ve always remembered that."
Lee acknowledged the dark chapters in American history. "I know sometimes we haven't lived up to those ideals that my dad believed in … That's clear when we read our history books," he said. But he maintained his father's faith in the perseverance of American ideals, "despite our different background and political views."
He promised to bring that faith and commitment to the largest circuit in the country. "If I'm lucky enough to be confirmed as a judge, not only will I take an oath to the Constitution, but I'll always try to honor the faith that my dad had in America and make him proud," Lee said, his voice breaking with emotion.
"I'm confident he would be proud, thank you," Senator Lee said.
President Donald Trump nominated Lee in October 2018 to fill the seat vacated by Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who passed in March.
Reacting to Lee's viral remarks, Cotton likewise took pride in Lee's story.
I’m proud to call Ken a friend. Pretty soon I’ll be proud to call him Judge. https://t.co/D6nciDLmyi
— Tom Cotton (@SenTomCotton) March 13, 2019
The exchange went viral after Nate Madden, a reporter at Blaze Media, shared an excerpt of the conversation on Twitter.
Lee has drawn scrutiny for past writings, including some from when he was a teenager. His home senators, Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, declined to support his nomination.