The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Nina Morrison to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, putting someone onto the federal bench with the extraordinary background of having worked to free dozens of innocent people from prison and death row.
Morrison was confirmed in a 53-46 vote to her lifetime federal judgeship. Every Democrat voted for her, along with three Republicans: Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.). Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) did not vote.
Morrison, 52, has spent the last 20 years being the senior litigation counsel at the New York-based Innocence Project, an organization focused on exonerating wrongly convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system. She has been lead or co-counsel on cases that have freed more than 30 innocent people from prison.
During her confirmation hearing in February, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee bizarrely attacked Morrison as if she had committed the crimes her clients had been convicted of — that they didn’t actually commit, either.
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), both potential 2024 presidential contenders who have used the committee’s hearings for grandstanding, tried to blame Morrison for spikes in violent crimes in cities across America. They pressed her on whether she felt guilty about freeing people from prison who had been convicted of violent crimes, despite the fact that they had all been exonerated by DNA evidence.
“Across this country, Americans are horrified at skyrocketing crime rates, at skyrocketing homicide rates, at skyrocketing burglary rates, at skyrocketing carjacking rates,” Cruz told Morrison. “All of those are the direct result of the policies you’ve spent your entire lifetime advancing.”
“I will oppose you and anyone else the administration sends to us who do not understand the necessity of the rule of law,” Hawley vowed, nonsensically.
Easily the biggest fail of the hearing, though, was when Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) tried to shame Morrison for her work on a case involving an Arkansas man, Ledell Lee, who was put to death in 2017 for the 1993 murder of a 26-year-old woman, Debra Reese. Four years after he was executed, a different man’s DNA was found on the murder weapon, which had not previously been tested. Morrison had taken up the case on behalf of Lee’s sister.
Cotton, also a potential 2024 presidential contender, appeared stunned that Morrison was examining this case so many years later — and did not seem to understand the significance and reliability of DNA testing.
“He was convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony and the possession of Ms. Reese’s stolen property,” Cotton insisted.
“Eyewitness identification, which you referenced, is actually the single leading proven cause of wrongful convictions,” Morrison replied, noting that there is “a significant amount of compelling evidence” in favor of Lee’s innocence.
“Compelling evidence that courts somehow overlooked for 22 years until he was executed?” interrupted Cotton, seemingly exasperated that Morrison actually knew what she was talking about.
“Senator, I have represented many individuals who were exonerated by DNA who lost dozens of appeals in courts because DNA was not available,” Morrison said.
Cotton resorted to trying to make Morrison feel guilty for taking on the case at all.
“As he walked to the execution chamber, on the night of his execution, he looked at a warden and smirked, and said, ‘This ain’t happening. You all are taking me back,’” Cotton said. “Are you proud that you encouraged such defiance of convicted murderers?”
“Senator, I don’t believe that anything in my career has ever encouraged defiance or disrespect for the process,” Morrison calmly replied. “I know that Mr. Lee maintained his actual innocence until his execution.”