WASHINGTON — Omaha attorney Steve Grasz faces a rockier road to the federal bench after the American Bar Association on Monday deemed him not qualified and questioned his ability to set aside ideological convictions to decide cases fairly.
That assessment was based in part on evaluating Grasz’s writings, as well as more than 200 interviews with people in a position to evaluate his professional qualifications, according to a statement by the bar association.
“Many questioned whether Mr. Grasz would be able to detach himself from his deeply held social agenda and political loyalty to be able to judge objectively, with compassion and without bias,” according to the statement by Pam Bresnahan, chairwoman of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary.
President Donald Trump nominated Grasz to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after he was recommended for the seat by both of Nebraska’s U.S. senators.
Nominees to the powerful appellate courts typically receive intense scrutiny from lawmakers, but the ABA report will make it that much tougher for Grasz when he appears Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Now a senior counsel at Husch Blackwell LLP in Omaha, Grasz has been politically active over the years and previously served as Nebraska’s chief deputy attorney general.
He has served as legal counsel to the campaigns of Gov. Pete Ricketts, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and Nebraskans for the Death Penalty.
Grasz did not respond to a request for comment. His supporters, however, defended his integrity and ability to serve as a judge.
And they slammed the bar association as a liberally biased organization out to besmirch a good man’s name for political purposes.
The ABA standing committee that reviews judicial nominations backed the “not qualified” rating unanimously with one abstention.
Only two judicial nominees have received unanimous “not qualified” ratings since 1989, said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who specializes in federal judicial selection.
“It’s very rare,” Tobias said, adding that those two other individuals were not confirmed.
The ABA noted that to date only one other nominee by President Trump has received a not qualified rating — that one was not unanimous — and that 41 have received ratings of qualified or well qualified.
Both of Nebraska’s Republican senators provided statements standing by Grasz.
“It’s sad that the ABA would contort their ratings process to try to tarnish Steve’s professional reputation in order to drive a political agenda,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, a member of the Judiciary Committee. “In more than a decade as chief deputy attorney general, whether he was litigating cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington or the Nebraska Supreme Court in Lincoln, Republicans and Democrats alike knew that Steve represented Nebraska with integrity and professionalism.”
Sen. Deb Fischer said in a statement that Grasz is “in good standing with the Nebraska State Bar Association” and was selected as a fellow by the Nebraska State Bar Foundation.
“Steve Grasz is highly respected by a bipartisan group of Nebraskans,” Fischer said. “For many years, Steve has earned the very highest peer rating available as a lawyer.”
In its statement, the ABA defended its process as nonpartisan, thorough and fair.
It laid out concerns raised by a number of those interviewed that he would be biased. Some related instances when Grasz was “gratuitously rude” and said they were worried about potential retaliation. Those worries came up in follow-up interviews by a second evaluator.
“Mr. Laurence Pulgram’s evaluation encountered a similar and unusual fear of adverse consequences expressed by those from whom interviews were solicited, of all political parties, based on the nominee’s deep connection and allegiance to the most powerful politicians in his state,” according to the ABA statement.
The ABA also specifically cited Grasz’s “pro-life agenda” as clouding his objectivity. The association characterized a 1999 law review article he wrote on abortion as supporting the idea that lower courts could question the jurisprudence of superior courts.
“This instance was not the only one in which Mr. Grasz’s passionately held social agenda appeared to overwhelm and obscure the ability to exercise dispassionate and unbiased judgment,” according to the statement.
Grasz’s defenders said the ABA evaluation shows that the organization has a liberal viewpoint, and they cited support Grasz has received from Democrats, including a letter from former U.S. Attorney for Nebraska Deborah Gilg.
One Nebraska Republican colleague, former U.S. Rep. Hal Daub, said he was not surprised by the ABA evaluation; he said the bar association representatives who interviewed him were clearly liberals out for blood.
Daub said any objective assessment of Grasz shows that he’s highly qualified to serve on the bench.
“He is ideologically quite clear and quite studied and quite learned in his views of the law, and that probably scares those liberals to death,” Daub said. “Because he’s a constitutionalist and he’s an interpreter of the law as it’s written.”
Tobias, the Richmond law professor, said the 15-member ABA standing committee represents well-respected attorneys from circuits across the country.
“It doesn’t seem like all of them would be politically motivated,” Tobias said.
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