First black female federal judge in Ohio to serve in Youngstown

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Benita Pearson

By David Skolnick


It was somewhat of a struggle, but the U.S. Senate confirmed Benita Y. Pearson as a federal district-court judge based in Youngstown.

“The confirmation of Judge Pearson to the U.S. District Court means that we can continue working toward a more just society,” said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who recommended Pearson to the president in July 2009.

The Senate voted 56-39 Tuesday in favor of Pearson, who becomes the first black female federal judge in Ohio. All the yes votes were from Democrats, with U.S. Sen. George V. Voinovich of Ohio the only Republican supporting her.

All other Republicans voted against Pearson as did U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat from Nebraska.

“I’m extremely grateful to Sens. Brown and Voinovich for recommending me and continuing to support my nomination throughout the confirmation process,” Pearson said. “I’m also very grateful to President Obama for nominating me. I appreciate the trust these public officials have placed in my abilities and character.”

Obama must sign paperwork before Pearson can officially begin her new duties. That could come as early as a few days.

After a blockade since September, Senate Republicans recently agreed to let at least 19 of President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees be confirmed in the waning days of the congressional session.

In exchange, Democrats committed to not seek votes on four other nominees.

During the past few days, the Senate has confirmed 14 of Obama’s nominees.

Until Tuesday, all the votes were by unanimous consent.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, brought up a question in discussions on Pearson’s confirmation about animal rights, said Meghan Dubyak, Brown’s spokeswoman.

Research showed that the U.S. Northern District of Ohio handled one animal-welfare case since 1839, Dubyak said.

That case involved an objection in 1991 by In Defense of Animals, a Geauga Coun-ty animal-rights group, about transferring a lowland gorilla named Timmy from the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo to the Bronx Zoo to mate, Dubyak said. The case was dismissed.

Dubyak said she didn’t know if that was the reason for the objection.

Pearson said she had “no idea” why there were senators who opposed her confirmation.

“I’m trying to figure out why there were 39 ‘no’ votes,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond School of Law professor and Senate judicial confirma-tion expert. “I don’t know why she’s controversial. Republicans were concerned, but not overly concerned about her appointment.”

Attempts on Tuesday by The Vindicator to reach spokesmen for Sessions and Nelson were unsuccessful.

Pearson, of Solon, 47, has been a federal magistrate for Ohio’s Northern District, based in Akron, since August 2008, and previously spent eight years as an assistant U.S. attorney with its organized-crime and public-corruption task force. She plans to relocate to the Mahoning Valley in the near future.

“Her background as a prosecutor, private practice attorney, certified public accountant, and magistrate makes Judge Pearson uniquely qualified to serve as a U.S. District Judge and I am looking forward to the Judge’s confirmation ceremony,” Brown said.

Brown recommended Pearson to Obama in July 2009. Five months later, Obama nominated her to the Senate for confirmation.

In February 2009, the Senate Judiciary Committee recommended to the full Senate the appointment of Pearson.

The judicial seat has been vacant since Judge Peter C. Economus went to senior status in July 2009. That has left the responsibilities of handling the court docket in Youngstown to U.S. Magistrate Judge George J. Limbert and to federal judges based in Akron and Cleveland.

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