Biden’s Judicial Nominees Have Diverse Backgrounds

The president’s first choices for district and appeals court openings reflected his campaign promise to choose judges who don’t have traditional backgrounds.,

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WASHINGTON — President Biden began a drive on Tuesday to reshape the federal courts with a burst of judicial nominations that emphasized diversity and drew from a broad range of backgrounds, including public defenders.

The effort is motivated in part by a desire to offset the conservative mark stamped on the federal judiciary by former President Donald J. Trump, who won confirmation of more than 220 judges, mostly white men. But Mr. Biden’s first round of nominations also sought to make good on his campaign promise to draw from a more diverse pool than either party has in the past and to redefine what it means to be qualified for the federal bench.

In a statement early Tuesday, the president announced the nominations of 11 people to serve as federal district or appeals court judges, moving faster than any president in decades to fill open positions in the courts. Aides said they were racing to announce another wave of nominees soon as part of what one called a “steady drumbeat” in the months ahead.

Mr. Biden’s nominees — led by Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson for the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — included three African-American women for appeals court vacancies. They also include candidates who, if confirmed by the Senate, would be the first federal district judge who is Muslim, the first Asian-American woman to serve on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Circuit and the first woman of color to serve as a federal judge in Maryland, the White House said.

“This trailblazing slate of nominees draws from the very best and brightest minds of the American legal profession,” Mr. Biden said.

The Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit is a case in point. After the only African-American judge serving there stepped aside in 2017, Mr. Trump had four chances to make a racially diverse pick for the court. He did not take the opportunity, instead naming four more white judges.

Mr. Biden’s first round of judicial picks was an effort to begin addressing such imbalances while the Senate is under Democratic control. Where Mr. Trump emphasized white male conservatives, Mr. Biden is diversifying not only the ethnic backgrounds of his candidates but their professional ones as well, seeking out nominees with varied legal careers.

“We have a real opportunity to remake what the judiciary looks like and remake it in a way that looks like the country and the lawyers that practice in it,” said Neil Eggleston, who served as President Barack Obama’s White House counsel from 2014 to 2017 and supports the new approach.

Allies say Mr. Biden, a former longtime chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee with a deep background in judicial nominations, is determined to install judges with different sets of experiences from the mainly white corporate law partners and prosecutors who have been tapped for decades by presidents of both parties. Mr. Biden has also promised to appoint the first African-American woman to the Supreme Court.

Advisers to the president said Mr. Biden was deeply concerned that many Americans — including those who took to the streets last summer to protest police killings of Black people — had lost faith in the ability of the judicial system to issue fair rulings in cases that directly affect their lives.

“We need the country, and lawyers, to look at the judiciary and see themselves, see the full range of faces and backgrounds,” said Dana Remus, the White House counsel and Mr. Biden’s top legal adviser.

“Over time, we hope and expect it does mean there’s greater trust and faith that judicial decisions reflect the full range of the country’s values,” Ms. Remus said in an interview.

Senate Republicans had no immediate reaction to individual nominees. Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said they should ultimately be judged on their own merits.

“We should neither be a rubber stamp, nor should we oppose nominees as a matter of course, as many Democrats did during the Trump administration,” Mr. Grassley said in a statement.

Among those named on Tuesday were nominees with experience as military and family court judges, a county administrator and an intellectual property lawyer.

For the Seventh Circuit, Mr. Biden chose Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, an experienced litigator who was a federal public defender in Chicago for a decade, not a traditional resume entry for an appeals court nominee. But progressives consider her to be emblematic of the type of candidates they hope Mr. Biden will select for other judicial openings around the country.

“The Seventh Circuit is currently all white judges, and it is time to reverse that trend that was so accelerated by the Trump administration,” said Russ Feingold, a former Democratic senator from Wisconsin who is now the president of the American Constitution Society, a progressive legal organization.

Ms. Jackson-Akiwumi, a partner at the Washington law firm Zuckerman Spaeder, is just one of the African-American candidates on Mr. Biden’s list, which also includes Judge Jackson, a lower-level federal judge in the District of Columbia who is considered a top candidate if Mr. Biden has an opportunity to name someone to the Supreme Court.

The first judicial picks of a new presidency typically set the tone for the administration. The White House tightly controlled information about who was under consideration. With 68 slots now open and an additional 26 scheduled to become vacant later this year, liberal activists are encouraging the administration to be aggressive to counter Mr. Trump’s choices, particularly since Democrats could lose control of the Senate in next year’s midterm elections.

ImageAdvisers said Mr. Biden was deeply concerned that many Americans had lost faith in the ability of the judicial system to issue fair rulings in cases that directly affect their lives.
Advisers said Mr. Biden was deeply concerned that many Americans had lost faith in the ability of the judicial system to issue fair rulings in cases that directly affect their lives. Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

White House officials said Mr. Biden was moving more quickly than Mr. Trump and other presidents. By the end of March of his first year, Mr. Trump had named only one circuit court judge and no district court judges. Mr. Obama had named one circuit court judge and three district court judges. President George W. Bush did not name any judges until May of his first year in office, and President Bill Clinton until August.

Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the panel would move “expeditiously” to consider the nominations, which were welcomed by progressive groups that had lobbied the White House to put forward diverse candidates and submitted the names of hundreds of prospects.

Brian Fallon, the executive director of Demand Justice, a progressive group, was among those who praised Mr. Biden’s selections. But he also complained that some of the nominees were former prosecutors and corporate lawyers recommended to the administration by senators, saying in a statement that “old habits die hard.”

But one top aide said Mr. Biden did not want to overcorrect by eliminating all former prosecutors or lawyers from big firms from consideration.

Mr. Biden is not the first Democratic president to try to reshape the federal bench. When Mr. Obama was elected, his lawyers also considered appointing judges who did not have the traditional pedigrees of litigating experience at major law firms, degrees from top colleges, selection to elite clerkships and service as federal prosecutors.

But when Mr. Obama’s counsel’s office sent the names of public defenders or sole practitioners to the American Bar Association for the standard review before nomination, the group frequently objected. One person familiar with the effort said the White House ran into what he called “endless difficulties” with the bar association, which would indicate privately that it intended to rate such candidates poorly.

Late last year, during his transition, Mr. Biden agreed with advisers to end Democratic presidents’ tradition of submitting names. The bar association will be free to issue judgments on those nominees, but only after the president has made his selections public.

That could help Mr. Biden fill judicial vacancies more quickly, several people familiar with the process said.

“If I were them, I’d be full speed and just assume you are going to lose the Senate in two years,” Mr. Eggleston said. “I don’t think that will happen, but that has to be their operating thought.”

Republicans said they knew they were in for a different kind of judicial nominee than they saw during the Trump era.

“You mean there won’t be that many Federalist Society members?” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, referring to the conservative legal organization that was a breeding ground for Trump judicial nominees.

Mr. Biden’s nominees, by contrast, are far more diverse. They include Judge Zahid N. Quraishi, who was an assistant U.S. attorney and an Army judge advocate general, for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey; Judge Deborah Boardman, who was a federal public defender, for the Maryland District Court; and Judge Florence Y. Pan, who has been a Superior Court judge in Washington since 2009, for the Federal District Court in the District of Columbia.

Administration officials said they hoped to earn the support of some Republicans for some of the president’s judicial nominees, though they expected opposition to many of the candidates. But they do not believe Republicans will be able to derail Mr. Biden’s picks if Democrats stay united, and activists are already urging Democrats to hold together to push nontraditional nominees.

“They are going to have to fight for these,” said Nan Aron, the longtime liberal judicial advocate who is the president of the Alliance for Justice. “These aren’t going to be slam dunks. Republicans are, I’m sure, armed and ready to go on the attack.”

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