By Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - A magistrate in Charleston who also worked in Greenville for nine years is one step closer to a federal judgeship after a smooth hearing Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
U.S. Magistrate Bruce Howe Hendricks was nominated by President Barack Obama in June to U.S. district court in Columbia.
Hendricks, a former federal prosecutor who has been a magistrate judge since 2002, was endorsed by both Republican senators from South Carolina during Tuesday's hearing, indicating her confirmation will not be controversial.
"She is highly respected by the bar and very much supported by Republicans and Democrats in South Carolina and will make an outstanding district court judge for our state," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, said during the hearing.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-Charleston, called Hendricks "bright as the dickens."
"Her trial experience, knowledge of the courtroom and the law and her devotion to improving our communities leads me to believe she will be fair and devoted to justice," Scott said.
The American Bar Association gave Hendricks a unanimous "well-qualified" rating for the post. Rep. James Clyburn, D-Columbia, also endorsed Hendricks.
The Judiciary Committee is expected to vote in the coming weeks to send Hendricks' nomination to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote. Lifetime judicial appointments require Senate confirmation.
The only pointed question about her record on Tuesday came from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the top Republican on the committee, who asked Hendricks her opinion on employment discrimination cases.
In a 2008 speech to the South Carolina Trial Lawyers Association, Hendricks said summary judgment, in which a judge ends a case early in favor of the defendant, represents a "serious hurdle" for employees suing an employer for discrimination. Grassley asked Hendricks to explain her statement.
"I think my practice is to grant summary judgment motions where the law and the facts are clear and support it, but as part of that, there is always a danger in dismissing a case too early, so you try to balance both of those," Hendricks testified.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias, who watched Tuesday's confirmation hearing, said the issue is controversial because plaintiffs' attorneys in the Fourth Circuit, which includes South Carolina, believe it is too difficult to avoid summary judgment rulings.
"Counsel for plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases are concerned that too-early summary judgment grants mean that plaintiffs will be precluded from telling their stories to juries," Tobias said.
Tobias said Grassley appeared satisfied with Hendricks' answer, and the committee is likely to move her nomination to the floor, where a backlog of judicial nominees awaits confirmation.
The senators also took an interest in a federal drug court program Hendricks oversaw that aims to help certain drug offenders get treatment for their addictions. Hendricks said it has reduced prison costs and recidivism rates, and has improved public safety. She said the program excludes drug offenders with crimes involving violence, child abuse or pornography.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked Hendricks about her toughest decisions as a judge.
"Every day, every case is important and I give great pause before I issue a ruling or make a decision," she said. "I think in particular in the criminal law arena, decisions in regards to an individual's liberty are always tough decisions and those would be my hardest decisions every day."
Hendricks graduated from the College of Charleston in 1983 and earned a law degree from the University of South Carolina in 1990. She was an assistant U.S. attorney in Charleston from 1991-2002, before moving to Greenville as a U.S. magistrate. In 2011, she moved to the federal magistrate's position in Charleston.