Last week, voting rights attorney Dale Ho appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a hearing on his nomination to a federal district court seat in New York. This was, in theory, a chance for lawmakers to ask questions of the nominee and evaluate his fitness for judicial service. Instead, some Republican senators in attendance engaged in a lively competition to see which one of them could ask the most asinine questions in the most theatrical way possible.
Ho, who directs the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project and previously served as assistant counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, is among the country’s higher-profile voting rights lawyers. Highlights of Ho’s career include persuading the Supreme Court to block former President Donald Trump’s citizenship question on the 2020 Census; winning a challenge to a Kansas law requiring proof of citizenship in order to register to vote; and challenging Trump’s attempt to exclude undocumented people from the Census count for purposes of congressional reapportionment. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, more than 90 of his Yale Law School classmates praised his “careful and thoughtful approach to the law,” and expressed confidence that he would apply the law “fairly and objectively.”
All of this, of course, is political kryptonite for Republicans, since talking about the state of voting rights in this country necessarily involves talking about how opposed to voting rights their entire political party is. Thus, instead of engaging with the substance of his career, multiple Republican senators busied themselves with wild, embarrassing mischaracterizations of Ho’s past statements, flailing about for something—anything—else to talk about.
Louisiana Senator John Kennedy spent his allotted time acting distraught over some of Ho’s old tweets. He seized on one tweet in particular in which Ho apparently joked about how others have occasionally caricatured him as a “wild-eyed sort of leftist.” Kennedy treated this as some kind of bombshell smoking-gun admission on Ho’s part, and asked Ho if he indeed identifies as such today.
When Ho patiently explained that, no, he does not identify as a “wild-eyed leftist,” Kennedy, a sitting U.S. senator, appeared baffled. He concluded his line of questioning by announcing that he would not support Ho’s confirmation because Ho, per Kennedy, is “an angry man.” “We don’t need federal judges who are angry,” Kennedy declared, some three years after voting to confirm national TV tantrum-thrower Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court without voicing any hesitation over Kavanaugh’s temperament.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz, meanwhile, interrogated Ho about the Biden administration’s decision to drop the lawsuit their predecessors had brought against Yale University for alleged “reverse discrimination” against white and Asian applicants: Is Ho “proud,” Cruz asked, to be an alumnus of a university that “discriminates against Asian-Americans”? (This bit of casual racism has been been popular among Republican senators towards Biden nominees of Asian descent; in September, Kennedy asked Yale alum Jennifer Sung, an appeals court nominee, the same question, prompting Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy to call on Republicans to “show some respect for those who are answering questions under oath.”)
The choice to drop the Yale lawsuit was, of course, a Department of Justice decision that literally had nothing to do with Dale Ho, a voting rights lawyer whose only connections to this latest front in the conservative movement’s war on affirmative action are “being a Yale alumnus” and “being Asian American.” Cruz demanding that Ho answer for Yale’s admissions policies was roughly the equivalent of asking 50 Cent if he’s proud of how awful Vitamin Water tastes.
The MVP of wasting everyone’s time was Utah Senator Mike Lee, who busied himself trying to get closure over a year-old, one-sided Twitter beef with Dale Ho. Understanding this deeply painful exchange requires going all the way back to last year’s vice presidential debate, when Lee tweeted a lengthy late-night authoritarian manifesto in which he opined, among many other things, that the United States is “not a democracy.” “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity are,” he wrote. (In Utah, using spell-check after midnight is illegal.) “We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
Ho, as one of many people who found this alarming, quote-tweeted Lee to highlight the Republican Party’s growing disdain for the political processes established in the Constitution. “The mask is off,” Ho wrote about Lee’s tweets. “Translation: If we can’t maintain minoritarian rule despite the Electoral College, Senate malapportionment, extreme partisan gerrymandering, and strict conditions on voting, then we’ll rely on a 6-3 SCOTUS to block any elected Democratic agenda.”
Ho’s sentiment wasn’t particularly ill-placed, given that Lee has since criticized proposed voting rights legislation as “rotten to the core” and “written in hell by the devil himself.” But getting called out in this manner evidently made Lee upset—or, more likely, embarrassed—and he treated the hearing some 14 months later as his chance to seek satisfaction. Even the polite apology Ho offered wasn’t enough for Lee, who continued his rant for nearly four additional minutes before concluding that Ho had expressed “open contempt for the Constitution” in his tweets.
To highlight the inflated concern of GOP senators over Ho’s supposed “anger,” several Democratic senators spoke in Ho’s defense. Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse noted the “selective outrage” at Ho’s tweets, given that Republicans voted to confirm an array of Trump nominees who had made a “litany of intemperate remarks” that presented no concerns at the time. Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono pointed out that Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing had inspired over 1,000 law professors and deans of law schools to write to the Senate Judiciary Committee to say he did not have the judicial temperament to be on the Supreme Court. “And yet, there he sits,” she said.
This insincere indignation on the part of Kennedy and other Republicans is part of a sincere right-wing effort to keep voting rights advocates out of positions of power. Discussing Ho’s past legal work would require shining a light on Republican efforts to restrict the right to vote. And although the GOP’s history of disenfranchisement is long and storied, these efforts began with renewed fervor after the 2020 presidential election as Republicans seek to capitalize on the “Big Lie” that widespread election fraud is the only reason Donald Trump lost. The ongoing post-Census redistricting cycle will continue to provide ample opportunities for the GOP to engage in its favorite sport of extreme gerrymandering. Already, state lawmakers have pushed an unprecedented wave of bills aimed at curbing the right to vote, and there’s little reason to think they will stop doing so anytime soon.
The confirmation of a federal judge like Ho—someone who understands the ins and outs of these fights—is a potential nightmare for the GOP, which is relying on restricting the right to vote as a large part of its 2024 election strategy. It’s no wonder so many senators proved willing to give theatrical performances during his confirmation hearing. They would do anything to avoid the one topic they would really prefer not to discuss.