President Joe Biden announced his first round of 11 judicial nominees Tuesday, a group of “attorneys who have excelled in the legal field in a wide range of positions, including as renowned jurists, public defenders, prosecutors, in the private sector, in the military, and as public servants at all levels of government,” the White House says. Biden is also setting a record with his nominees. At this point in his term, President Obama had made just one nomination and Trump just two.
“This group also includes groundbreaking nominees, including three African American women chosen for Circuit Court vacancies, as well as candidates who, if confirmed, would be the first Muslim American federal judge in U.S. history, the first AAPI woman to ever serve on the U.S. District Court for the District of D.C., and the first woman of color to ever serve as a federal judge for the District of Maryland.”
At the top of the list is U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the influential appeals court in Washington, D.C., succeeding Merrick Garland who is now attorney general. Jackson has been tapped by court watchers as at the top of the list for the Supreme Court. She has served on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia since 2013, following a stellar career including a stint as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. She served as an assistant special counsel for the United States Sentencing Commission from 2003 to 2005, and as an assistant federal public defender in Washington, D.C. in 2007.
Jackson has “a real commitment to equal justice for everybody and believes the criminal justice system ought to have integrity at every level,” A.J. Kramer, the longtime federal public defender in Washington and Jackson’s one-time boss, told The Washington Post. He said her nomination speaks to Biden’s commitment to diversifying the judiciary with nominees from a variety of professional experience. She’s also a badass.
In 2019, from her Washington, D.C. district court seat, Jackson squelched the Trump administration’s effort to block a House subpoena for testimony from former White House counsel Donald McGahn. “Presidents are not kings,” she wrote. “However busy or essential a presidential aide might be, and whatever their proximity to sensitive domestic and national-security projects, the President does not have the power to excuse him or her from taking an action that the law requires,” Jackson wrote. “Fifty years of say so within the Executive branch does not change that fundamental truth.” That case is still active, by the way, having been appealed twice now. The Biden administration and House Democrats are negotiating a possible settlement.
Biden is nominating two more former public defenders: Deborah Boardman for the District Court for the District of Maryland, and Margaret Strickland for the District Court of the District of New Mexico. In addition to the three Black women Biden is nominating, his list includes Judge Zahid Quraishi (New Jersey), the potential first Muslim federal judge in the country’s history; Judge Florence Pan, the first Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) woman to ever serve on the Washington, D.C. District Court; and Judge Lydia Griggsby, the first woman of color for a federal judge in Maryland.
From the transition, Biden has insisted on getting nominees “whose legal experiences have been historically underrepresented on the federal bench, including those who are public defenders, civil rights and legal aid attorneys, and those who represent Americans in every walk of life.” That’s what his team told Democratic senators in a Dec. 22 letter, asking them to identify district nominees ASAP.
That’s music to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s ears. For years the senator has been advocating for much broader legal experience to be reflected on the federal bench. Back in 2014 at an Alliance for Justice event on the topic, she said: “We face a federal bench that has a striking lack of diversity,” calling out the preponderance of corporate lawyer and especially prosecutors who had been advancing to the bench. “President Obama has supported some notable exceptions,” she said, “but … the president’s nominees have thus far been largely in line with the prior statistics.” HuffPost interviewed her last week about the issue. “I talk with other senators about this. I have raised this with White House staff and I will continue to do so,” Warren said. “We need to think of ‘diversity’ in the fullest meaning of the word.”
“I think some people never thought of it that way,” she said, referring to professional diversity as well as demographic. “I think they’ve channeled their thinking along certain lines, and also where they look for federal judges. So, it’s been big firms and prosecutors.” She’s working hard at getting that to change, apparently with the enthusiastic support of the Biden team. “People like labor lawyers and consumer lawyers and small-firm lawyers―all of those require letting them know they should apply,” Warren said. “Letting them know that if they came forward, that senators would be interested.”
This round of district court nominees won’t challenge Sen. Dick Durbin’s decision on blue slips. The judiciary chair has determined to continue to honor the blue slip tradition—clearance from home state senators for nominees to proceed in committee—just as long as Republicans don’t abuse the process. During the Obama administration, Republican senators regularly refused to give the go ahead on nominees from their states, and the former Democratic chair, Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, let it go. This round of nominees are in Colorado, New Mexico, and New Jersey, so there won’t be any Republicans dragging their heels on this set.