For more than a decade, Texans of all political stripes have rooted for Karen Gren Scholer to become a federal judge, even as the job repeatedly slipped through her hands.
The former Dallas state district judge was first elected to the bench as a Republican in 2000, where Scholer quickly won respect from Dallas Bar Association members with her fair rulings and judicial temperament. By 2007, she caught the attention of Republican Sen. John Cornyn and former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who interviewed her for a spot on the federal bench in Dallas during George W. Bush’s presidency.
But she was passed over for Judge Reed O’Connor, a former federal prosecutor who previously served as Cornyn’s general counsel.
Scholer retired from the state bench in 2009, just behind a blue wave in Dallas County in which every trial bench was won by a Democrat. She became a partner at Jones Day and later left to start civil litigation firm Carter Scholer in 2014.
Yet Scholer remained popular among her peers, and by 2015, leaders in the Asian American Bar Association and prominent Dallas Democrats including Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson were campaigning to have President Barack Obama consider her for a district court vacancy, a move that would make her the first Asian-American U.S. district judge in Texas.
But Scholer’s nomination was left pending without a Senate floor vote during the final days of the Obama presidency.
However in October, Scholer’s shot at a bench was revived when she was one of 12 pending judicial nominees from red states that President Donald Trump renominated. This time, Trump nominated her for a vacancy in Dallas.
With that nomination, Scholer added another first to her quest for a bench. She is the only Texan to be selected for a district judge vacancy in two different divisions by different administrations.
Scholer’s 10-year journey to become a federal judge was accomplished March 5 when the Senate confirmed her with a 95-0 roll call vote.
“I believe that there is no greater way for me to serve my country and community than as a district court judge,” Scholer said immediately after the vote. “It has been an extraordinary and remarkable journey, but the most important part of it lies ahead.”
The decadelong wait for a bench has it’s positives she added. “I will be a wiser, more patient, and better federal judge than if I had gotten the position 10 years ago,’’ Scholer said.
Scholer added she was so ready to get to work that she briefly considered skipping an investiture—a formal proceeding attended by family, friends, supporters and federal judges from to welcome a new jurist.
But her husband, Gunnar Scholer, shot that idea down.
“He said ‘You have to have an investiture.’ I said ‘Why?’” Scholer said. “And he said ‘Because you’re the Susan Lucci of Texas federal judges and you’re doing that investiture for them!’” — referencing the TV soap star who was nominated for 19 Daytime Emmy awards before finally winning one.
“I told that story to some friends,” Scholer said. “One of them sent me an email that said ‘Susan Lucci no more!’ ’’
On March 7, Trump’s signature on her commission had barely dried when Scholer arranged for Barbara Lynn, chief judge for the Northern District of Texas, to swear her in at the Dallas Earle Cabell Federal Building.
Yet, when word got out that Scholer was being sworn in, Lynn said her courtroom quickly filled to capacity as Dallas civil litigators, members of the local Asian American Bar Association, Scholer’s friends and family, and a few federal judges from the neighboring Eastern District of Texas dropped in to witness the historic event.
“I think she’ll be excellent, hard-working judge that everyone in the legal community will be proud to have on the bench,’’ Lynn said.
Lynn couldn’t resist telling the audience how she was pleased Scholer’s nomination for the Eastern District of Texas didn’t work out.
“Their loss is our gain,” Lynn said. “When I swore her in, I said you’re now a Northern District of Texas judge!’’
Matt Orwig, a partner in the Dallas office of Winston & Strawn and a former Eastern District of Texas U.S. attorney, rushed over from his office to see Scholer sworn in.
“My gosh, there were so many people pulling for her,’’ Orwig said. “I got an email about the swearing in about an hour before it happened. And the courtroom was still packed. It shows how many people were rooting for her and empathizing for her because she was so close, so many times.’’
Wei Wei Jeang, a past president of the Dallas Asian American Bar Association who wrote Obama encouraging Scholer’s appointment, was also there to see Scholer sworn in.
“I’m just so thrilled because it’s been such a long journey. We’re all relieved,’’ Jeang said. “There is going to be an investiture and then we can really party.’’
David Prichard, a San Antonio lawyer who chairs Cornyn’s and Cruz’s Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee and helped vet Scholer’s nomination, is glad Scholer finally got her spot on the bench.
“I’m sure there are days where she said this is never going to happen, but she persisted. She’s going to be great for Dallas and the state and I’m very pleased for her,” Prichard said. “And it’s a testament to her that there were no dissenting votes to her nomination. Yes bipartisanship is rare these days, but when Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders vote yes on the same thing, it tells you the system is working.’’
Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who follows federal judicial nominations, said Scholer’s bipartisan support combined with her unusual path to the bench is one of the few bright spots in a divisive Trump administration.
“It just exemplifies what you can do if you work together and cooperate,” Tobias said. “The Democrats were thrilled with her under Obama. Everybody likes her and respects her. That’s the way to fill vacancies in Texas.’’
Scholer’s path to the federal bench is as inspiring as it is compelling because of the immigrant story behind it.
Scholer was born in 1957 in Tokyo to an American serviceman and a Japanese mother. Her family moved to Richardson when she was 4 years old. She graduated from Rice University in 1979 and Cornell University Law School in 1982. Scholer later became a civil litigator, made partner in Dallas’ Strasburger & Price in 1989, joined Andrews & Kurth in 1996 and was elected to the 95th State District Court in 2000.
Her father has since died, but Scholer’s 89-year-old mother, Toshiko Gren, still lives in an assisted living center in North Dallas. Scholer made sure her mother was watching during the March 5 Senate vote.
“I was just praying she would be alive to see the moment,” Scholer said. “They set her up in front of the TV so she could watch. And my mom got to see the American dream happen.”
Scholer promises she’ll have an investiture. It’ll probably happen in June or July, she said. Expect it to be extremely well-attended.