A year ago, when then-Berkeley Law professor Goodwin Liu was the subject of a contentious Senate battle over his nomination to the federal appeals court in San Francisco, D.C. lobbyist Vincent Eng was busy handing out 1,800 campaign pins that said, “Good Win Good,” and bumper stickers that read, “Goodwin! www.confirmnow.org.”
Liu later withdrew his name after Senate Republicans filibustered his nomination — he is now an associate justice on the California Supreme Court — but Eng’s work getting Liu’s name and qualifications before senators and the public got him noticed in the close-knit community of advocates, legal scholars and attorneys pushing for more diversity among the nation’s federal judges.
“All the [judicial] nominees started talking to me,” Eng said. “That’s how it started.”
Last October, Eng left The Raben Group, the lobbying firm founded by former assistant attorney general Robert Raben, to start his own firm, Veng Group. (The Raben Group has lobbied for The Washington Post Co. on legislation affecting the Post-owned Kaplan and other for-profit educational institutions.)
Veng Group has since grown from four to seven employees, and added 12 clients to its original six. In the past two months, Eng has hired attorney George Wu as a partner in Washington, former reporter Charu Gupta to open a Boston office and plans to hire another communications consultant in Los Angeles to start later this summer.
Eng does not get paid by the nominees themselves. He works on behalf of the bar associations that represent Asian American, black and Native American lawyers that endorse the nominees, and helps them devise strategies for how to present those nominees to lawmakers and the public. His clients include the National Bar Association, which represents African American lawyers and judges, and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, for whom he led the Liu campaign and that of another controversial Obama nominee, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Chen. He also works with the National Native American Bar Association on a pro bono basis, having consulted on the group’s campaign to get Arvo Mikkanen a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma. Mikkanen, who is of Native American descent, did not get confirmed.
Eng serves as a D.C. contact for the nominees, advising them on how the confirmation process works and preparing them for Senate hearings, including briefing them on frequently asked questions and alerting them to which senators may ask about specific issues.
“I liken it to that of Jerry Maguire,” the fictitious sports agent at the center of a movie by the same name, Eng said. “It’s like being an agent. You ensure there’s proper messaging on the nominees to the White House … When you’re a nominee that’s contentious, having a consistent flow of information helps them along on the process.”
He recently worked with bar groups to push the nominations of Jacqueline Nguyen, the first Asian American female to serve as a federal appellate judge, and Los Angeles attorney Paul Watford. Both were confirmed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last month. Veng is now working to get Lorna Schofield, a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton in New York, confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Schofield was nominated by Obama in April, and could become the first Filipino American judge on a federal court.
Lobbying for judicial nominees is a rare specialty in the private sector. While it’s common for not-for-profit legal and advocacy groups to take positions on nominees, few private firms claim it as their niche.
“It’s unique because it’s about a person,” said Raben, whose firm is working pro bono on several pending judicial nominations endorsed by the Hispanic National Bar Association. “You’re dealing with the reputation, qualifications and brand of an identified person, and how that gets understood and shaped in a Senate context.”
Because potential judges must maintain the appearance of political neutrality, they cannot campaign on their own behalf. But the confirmation process is indisputably political because every individual up for a federal judgeship gets nominated by the White House, and is subject to a Senate vote.
“So someone has to be out there talking to the chief of police, victims’ groups, prosecutors, unions, “Raben said, “getting feedback from them on what they they think about the nominee.”
Eng estimates that fees from lobbying for nominees makes up about five percent of his firm’s revenue. So far this year it’s brought in just $5,000 from the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, according to Senate records. The rest comes from work on what Eng calls “progressive values,” including health policy, civil rights, criminal justice, housing and law enforcement issues.
But Eng calls judicial nominations work “the funnest part of the job.” And it comes with other benefits, such as cementing contacts with lawmakers who share an interest in diversifying the federal bench.
“You’re also spending a lot of time with senators who are interested in this work, you form more trusting relationships,” Raben said. “If I go work with them on immigration or reproductive rights, it’s nice to have also had these deeper relations based on the nominees.”