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Feinstein broke glass ceilings during decades of Judiciary Committee work

California senator pushed laws for gun restrictions and women’s safety on her way to being first woman ranking member

Sens. Charles E. Grassley and Dianne Feinstein — at the time the chairman and ranking Democrat, respectively — listen to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Supreme Court nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh in 2020.
Sens. Charles E. Grassley and Dianne Feinstein — at the time the chairman and ranking Democrat, respectively — listen to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Supreme Court nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh in 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Pool)

The Senate Judiciary Committee will lose one of its stalwarts with the death of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who carved out part of her legacy with high-profile work on the historically male-dominated panel.

Feinstein and Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois etched their names into committee history as the first women members, a move that followed the highly contentious confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991 that featured Anita Hill’s sexual harassment accusations against Thomas.

Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor, was elected to the Senate in 1992 — dubbed the Year of the Woman because a then-unprecedented four women were elected to the Senate that year. She would spend nearly three decades on the panel.

She became one of the Democratic Party’s most prominent advocates for gun control, writing a ban on assault weapons that became law in 1994. She was a key voice on policy about the ability of the government’s national security agencies to collect information.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, in a floor speech Friday, lauded Feinstein’s legacy and said her accomplishments included championing the Violence Against Women Act and “fighting for reproductive justice.”

“She gave a voice, a platform, a model for women across the country who aspire to roles in leadership, in public service, who want to leave their own mark on the world, who want to make this country a better place for others,” Schumer said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., also during a floor speech Friday, recalled Feinstein’s ability to dig into issues and recalled one time when the California Democrat invited her to stay overnight at her house after an event. At the time, they were the only two women on the Judiciary Committee, Klobuchar said.

“And I got up early in the morning and she called me, summoned me, into her room. She was sitting up — straight up — with these big fuzzy slippers on, on a Saturday morning, reading a 200-page bill, the Patent Reform Act,” Klobuchar said.

Feinstein started quizzing her on the details of the intellectual property bill. “That was Dianne. She did her homework,” Klobuchar said.

In 2017, Feinstein became the first woman to serve as a ranking member on the Judiciary Committee. The panel was at the center of high-profile fights, including the confirmation fights over President Donald Trump’s appointees to the Supreme Court, federal courts and the Justice Department.

That included the political and cultural moment around a woman’s allegation of sexual assault by Brett M. Kavanaugh dating back decades to when he was a teenager, one the Supreme Court justice vigorously denies. That Kavanaugh confirmation clash landed amid the momentum of the “Me Too” movement, as women came forward to expose years of sexual misconduct in the movie and television industries, politics, media and other workplaces.

Feinstein stepped aside from that role as top Democrat years later, amid criticism from some grassroots advocacy groups that sought a more aggressive or partisan approach during the Biden presidency, and in the wake of the confirmation fight over Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. In a nod to a spirit of Senate comity that in many ways seemed to come from a bygone era, Feinstein had praised then-Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina for the way the hearings were conducted and gave him a hug at the conclusion of the proceedings.

But more broadly, Democrats and their allies harshly criticized then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republicans for jamming through Barrett’s confirmation so close to the presidential election.

“Going forward, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee must be led by someone who will not wishfully cling to a bygone era of civility and decorum that Republicans abandoned long ago,” Brian Fallon, executive director of Demand Justice, said at the time.

Feinstein remained a respected voice of seniority on the committee, particularly when it came to her long-held priorities.

In 2021, Feinstein came to a hearing on gun control legislation 27 years after leading the passage of a federal assault weapons ban, 17 years after it was allowed to lapse and the day after such a weapon was used in a mass shooting at a Colorado grocery store that left 10 people dead, including a police officer.

“These things are not going to stop, members. They’re just not,” the California Democrat told her colleagues. “I’ve sat here for a quarter of a century listening — they don’t stop. And if you give people the ability to easily purchase a weapon that can be devastating to large numbers of people, some of them will use that.”

Feinstein’s spot on the committee was a source of interest this year because of her extended absence following a shingles diagnosis. Criticism came in part because Democrats needed her on the committee to advance certain judicial nominees.

In April, Feinstein had announced plans to temporarily step aside from the Judiciary Committee until she could return to work in Washington. Senate Republicans blocked the move.

In May, Feinstein returned to the committee, entering in a wheelchair, receiving a standing ovation and voting without making any lengthy statements.

Her death leaves a vacancy on the 21-senator committee, which now has three women members: Klobuchar, Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.

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