SAN FRANCISCO – Jacqueline Nguyen knows adversity.
She, her siblings and their parents fled Vietnam, and the 10-year-old Nguyen spent her first days in the United States in 1975 in a refugee tent city at the Camp Pendleton Marine base in California.
Nguyen, 50, says her parents’ perseverance to provide for their six children and start a new life in a foreign country has inspired her to seize opportunities even when they may be difficult or new.
Now a federal appeals court judge, Nguyen may need to summon that inspiration again if President Barack Obama names her as his pick for the U.S. Supreme Court, with a bruising partisan battle looming regardless of the nominee Obama sends to the U.S. Senate. The court is operating with only eight justices since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last month.
Senators confirmed Nguyen’s nomination by Obama to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2012 by a vote of 91-3, making her the first Asian-American woman to serve as a federal appellate judge.
But her record on the 9th Circuit, where she has sided with the circuit’s more liberal judges in several cases, would draw scrutiny from Republicans, said Arthur Hellman, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a scholar on the 9th Circuit.
“There’s a very, very consistent pattern that does say where she stands,” Hellman said. For example, he cited a 6-5 ruling in 2015 that overturned the Bush administration’s decision to exempt the Tongass National Forest in Alaska from rules that limited road construction and timber harvesting in national forests.
In another 6-5 ruling, Nguyen was among the judges who overturned an Arizona’s man death sentence in 2015 on the grounds that the state wrongly dismissed his post-traumatic stress disorder as a mitigating factor. The ruling said Arizona’s Supreme Court had been making the same underlying mistake for years, opening the door to many potential court challenges from Arizona inmates sent to death row between the late 1980s and 2006.
The decision brought a sharp dissent from Judge Carlos Bea, who was appointed by President George W. Bush. Bea said the decision ignored 9th Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court precedents, brushed aside gruesome crimes and smeared the Arizona Supreme Court.
Nguyen was a federal judge in California when Obama nominated her to the 9th Circuit. She had previously worked as a state judge and a federal prosecutor.
But her work experience had more humble beginnings.
Nguyen has talked about one of her mother’s first jobs peeling, cutting and packing apples and how she would help her with the work late into the night. Nguyen also worked at her family’s doughnut shop in Los Angeles.