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Opinion: The attacks against this judicial nominee are un-American

Editor’s Note: Khizr Khan is a lawyer and president of Democracy and Constitution Institute. The views expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinions at CNN.

As a proud American Muslim of Pakistani origin who has been subject to Islamophobia in this country, I watch with great sadness as that same pain is inflicted on another proud American in full view of a Senate with the power — but perhaps not the will — to stop it.

Courtesy Khizr Khan
Courtesy Khizr Khan

I’m talking about the smear campaign aimed at President Joe Biden’s nominee for a seat on the US Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Adeel Mangi. A highly accomplished Harvard- and Oxford-educated lawyer, Mangi was born in Pakistan and, like myself, is an American by choice.

Mangi is an undisputed star in the legal world. He secured a $2 billion verdict, the largest in Virginia’s history, in a case involving theft of trade secrets in the software business. He also secured the largest settlement in the history of New York state for cases involving the death of a state prison inmate. In his pro bono work, Mangi has fought against religious discrimination, winning on behalf of Muslim congregations whose applications to build houses of worship had been denied. Considering his extensive work in complex federal and state cases, Biden saw fit to honor him with a nomination that would make him the first Muslim American on the federal appellate bench.

But what is happening now is nothing short of outrageous, as Republican senators at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in December lobbed question after question not about his legal philosophy or record, but about whether he supports terrorism and Hamas. “Do you condemn the atrocities of Hamas terrorists?” asked Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who also demanded to know if Mangi supported the 9/11 attacks on the US. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri also tried to get Mangi to opine on whether Israel was a colonial state.

An outside group, the Judicial Crisis Network, launched an ad campaign last month baselessly accusing Mangi of antisemitism. That smear met strong opposition from a number of Jewish advocacy organizations. The National Council of Jewish Women said they “unequivocally denounce” the accusations against Mangi, and the Anti-Defamation League sharply criticized the “inappropriate and prejudicial treatment” of Mangi at his hearing.

Now, another baseless charge has been lobbed at Mangi, accusing him of supporting violence against police — a grotesque accusation rooted in Islamophobia. However, more than half a dozen law enforcement organizations have responded by stating their support for Mangi.

Throughout his hearing, Mangi’s conduct has shown the integrity, honor and evenness of temperament that we require in a judge. Badgered at his hearing to take a position on Gaza or Hamas, he forcefully and calmly repudiated all forms of terrorism. He patiently pointed out that as a nominee for the federal bench, he claims no expertise in foreign affairs.

He has also shown his firm grasp of the role: A judge sets aside his or her personal beliefs when putting on the robe, relies on “just and fair application of the Constitution, statute, and precedent” in all cases and believes that all people who come before the court must be treated equally, regardless of their circumstances or which judge hears their case.

We would be well-served by a person of his caliber on the bench.

It is disheartening to see these endless attacks on Mangi. Yes, we are in one of the most polarized political climates this country has seen in decades. The partisan divide in America is deep and getting deeper. Mangi’s attackers are trying to take advantage of this and of the latest political controversy over the Gaza war, and leveraging a looming election in a closely divided Senate. It’s entirely possible that were we in a different political environment, these attacks might not be happening — or they might not be as terrible.

But there comes a time when leaders, or in this case, members of the Senate, must rise above political partisanship for the good of our democracy.

Mangi’s experience is also deeply concerning for other talented lawyers who might consider a career on the bench. In nearly every case, the people who put themselves forward for these seats could make far more money in private practice. Federal circuit court judges in the US are paid just under $260,000 per year, while partners at large law firms can make hundreds of thousands — even millions — more. Yet today, the confirmation process is becoming one that nominees, especially those from underrepresented communities, may “think twice” about before subjecting themselves to.

After my son, US Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed in Iraq, I began speaking at various young Americans’ gatherings. I always tell the audiences what I believe: Diversity has made the US military the greatest and strongest in the world.

Diversity in any organization brings more innovative thought, insight and value from multiple perspectives. That is as true for the federal bench as it is for the military and all of our national institutions. Yet Mangi’s path to the bench is being blocked by the weaponization of religious bigotry to serve partisan political interests. The attacks threaten to starve our federal bench of diversity now and in the future, making them a disservice not just to one individual but to our democracy itself.

Today I have a grandson who wants to be a lawyer, and as I watch Mangi’s experience I find myself wondering: If my grandson had the honor of a nomination to the federal courts one day, would he inevitably face what Mangi is facing? No parent or grandparent in our country wants to believe that is our future, and it is deeply contrary to our nation’s founding values.

I have always had faith in our democracy, the role of our Congress in making our democracy strong and vibrant, and I still do. I believe in our Constitution, in the rule of law and in our country’s promise of justice and opportunity. I believe most senators do as well, so now is the time for them to show it.

Senators must not let Mangi’s nomination be defeated by partisanship. This exceptional American deserves a seat on the federal bench.

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