Biden Unveils Diverse First Round of Judicial Picks

Progressives are praising President Biden’s first slate of judicial nominations, many of which will break racial and gender barriers.

President Joe Biden walks off after a news conference in the East Room of the White House last week. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Keeping to a promise to diversify the halls of government from the White House on down, President Joe Biden on Tuesday nominated a slew of candidates to fill vacant seats on federal district and circuit courts. 

“This trailblazing slate of nominees draws from the very best and brightest minds of the American legal profession,” Biden said in a statement announcing the nominations. 

The 11 nominees, the largest number submitted at one time in a president’s first 100 days, include Zahid Quraishi, who would be the first Muslim American federal district judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. Other nominees include Florence Y. Pan, who would be the first Asian American and Pacific Islander woman to serve on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and Lydia Griggsby, who’d be the first woman of color to ever serve as a federal judge for the District of Maryland. 

If confirmed to a seat on the Federal Circuit, Perkins Coie partner Tiffany Cunningham would be the first Black woman to serve on the patent-specific federal appeals court. 

“Each is deeply qualified and prepared to deliver justice faithfully under our Constitution and impartially to the American people — and together they represent the broad diversity of background, experience, and perspective that makes our nation strong,” Biden added. 

Another standout quality among some of the nominees is their background as public defenders. 

Current U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Boardman, up for a district judge seat in Maryland, worked for the Federal Public Defender’s Office for seven years, while Margaret Strickland, nominated for a federal judgeship in New Mexico, worked for her home state’s Public Defender’s Office for five years.

Ketanji Brown Jackson, a district judge in Washington nominated for a spot on the D.C. Circuit, served as an assistant federal public defender in the nation’s capital for three years. If confirmed by the Senate, she would fill the seat left vacant when Judge Merrick Garland took on the role of the nation’s top law-enforcement officer as Biden’s attorney general

Brian Fallon, executive director of the progressive legal advocacy group Demand Justice, lauded the nominees’ public defender background in a Tuesday morning tweet. His group, along with 30 other organizations including NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, signed on to a letter in mid-March asking for “balance to a bench where former corporate lawyers and prosecutors are so heavily overrepresented.”

“That’s a big step in the right direction,” Fallon tweeted after Biden’s nominees were unveiled, before asking his followers to push their senators to support the president’s picks.

A public defender background is something Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin is also looking for, according to a statement he released following Biden’s announcement.

The Illinois Democrat praised all the candidates as “highly qualified” and “clearly worthy” of consideration, but he pinpointed Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, up for a seat on the Seventh Circuit, for her background as a public defender, saying she would bring “an important perspective that is a valuable asset to the judiciary.” Durbin also said Jackson-Akiwumi would bring “much-needed demographic diversity” to the Chicago-based appeals court.  

The nominations also line up with a letter sent out by White House counsel Dana Remus back in December which, according to a copy obtained by the Huffington Post, asked for senators to recommend a field of candidates who “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.”

The list is also finding praise from the progressive legal group Alliance For Justice, which put out a call alongside over 70 other legal groups for Biden to live up to his campaign’s diversity promises shortly after his win in November. 

“Donald Trump and Senate Republicans have overwhelmingly shifted the balance of our courts,” the group wrote in a letter. “That is why the Biden administration must immediately and explicitly prioritize judicial appointments.”

The group appeared happy Tuesday as it pushed out a tweet claiming the president “is certainly delivering.”

The list should also please House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler. Just last week, the New York Democrat used a subcommittee hearing to compare the federal judiciary of today to that of the bench in 1921: “uncomfortably similar” with a makeup that is “overwhelmingly male, white, former prosecutors or corporate lawyers who went to a handful of law schools.”

“Unfortunately, we have a lot of work to do when it comes to judicial diversity,” Nadler said at the hearing. 

But Nadler’s role in the House will have little impact on the nominations beyond his use of a bully pulpit. Instead Senators Durbin and Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, will have the most sway as leaders of Senate Judiciary Committee, the first hurdle for the nominees to overcome. Grassley did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday morning.  

Other nominees include county attorney Julien Neals for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey and WilmerHale partner Regina Rodriguez for the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.

Biden also nominated a judge for the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. For an opening there, he picked Rupa Ranga Puttagunta, who is currently an administrative judge for the D.C. Rental Housing Commission.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will have to docket the nominations before any candidate is considered at a confirmation hearing. While no timeline is set for hearings, former President Donald Trump’s success in adding over 200 judges to federal benches nationwide reportedly lit a fire under Biden to match his predecessor’s pace.

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