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Senate Committee Probes Biden’s Diverse Court Nominees

President Biden’s first slate of judicial nominees faced Senate questioning about race, professional backgrounds and packing the Supreme Court.

WASHINGTON (CN) — A federal judge rumored to be President Joe Biden’s nomination pick for the Supreme Court should a vacancy arise appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation hearings on Wednesday alongside four other judicial nominees.

Ketanji Brown Jackson, a district judge in Washington has been 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.

Back in 2016, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in Washington, D.C. was among the candidates considered by President Barack Obama to fill Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat. While the Supreme Court has never had a female Black justice, President Biden has pledged to appoint one if given the opportunity.

Jackson endured questioning before the committee Wednesday alongside fellow appellate candidate Candace Jackson-Akiwumi. Up for a seat on the Seventh Circuit, her background includes 10 years as a public defender. Jackson-Akiwumi would be the second Black woman to serve on the Chicago-based appeals court, following Judge Ann Claire Williams, who retired from the circuit in 2017.

Republican senators tailored questions for the appellate prospects about how their racial background impacts their rulings.

Both women maintained that their race did not factor into their rulings.

“Race would be the kind of thing that would be inappropriate to inject in my evaluation of a case,” Jackson told the committee in response to a question from Republican Texas Sen. John Cornyn. 

“I’m doing a certain thing when I get my cases. I’m looking at the arguments, the facts and the law. I’m methodically and intentionally setting aside personal views, any other inappropriate considerations,” Jackson continued.

Jackson-Akiwumi echoed Jackson’s testimony.

“I don’t believe race will play a role in the type of judge that I would be if confirmed,” Jackson-Akiwumi said to the senators. She later added, “I do believe that demographic diversity of all types, even beyond race, plays an important role in increasing public confidence in our courts, and increases the public’s ability to accept the legitimacy of court decisions.”

By contrast, Democrats emphasized that both judges also come from professional backgrounds as public defenders, which would offer more diversity on appellate panels where most appointees come from prosecutorial backgrounds.

Jackson told committee chairman Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, that her previous work as a defender has impacted how she acts as a judge. Aware that many defendants may not fully understand the system, she said, she explains each step of the process to these individuals, speaking directly to them.

Jackson-Akiwumi emphasized that her decade as a public defender taught her the importance of setting aside personal convictions and personal opinions in a case. 

“We represented whoever walked in the door, charged with whatever crime, so long as they needed an attorney, so long as they were poor and working-class and could not afford an attorney,” she said of her previous work.

Several Republicans also brought concerns to both candidates about their ties to the group Demand Justice, which backed both justices’ confirmations. Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, described the group as a dark-money liberal organization, and asked the appellate nominees if they were aware that the group is employing a robust marketing campaign to expand and pack the Supreme Court.

In questions asked by Tillis, Cornyn, and others, the nominees declined to make any comment on the idea of expanding the Supreme Court, saying that they could not share personal views on the matter under the code of conduct for U.S. judges.

“As a sitting judge, I am bound by the Supreme Court, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to comment on the structure or size of the court any more than it would be for me to comment on the court’s rulings,” Jackson said during the hearing. “Regardless of the size, I would follow the precedents of the Supreme Court.”

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, also asked Jackson whether she would accept a Supreme Court nomination if the high court expanded. Jackson refrained again from commenting. 

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to comment on proposals about the structure of the court, about expanding the court or anything of the sort,“ she said.

At a separate panel Wednesday, the committee also briefly questioned President Biden’s picks for several open federal judicial positions. These nominees, all people of color, all spoke about their family backgrounds for the record during questioning posed by Cory Booker, a Democratic senator from New Jersey.

Zahid Quraishi was nominated for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey; if appointed, he would be the first Muslim American federal district judge. He thanked his mother and late father, who passed away from Covid-19 this past year, for pushing him to pursue law school.

Quraishi vowed that he would approach his historical nomination the same way he approached being the first Asian American on the New Jersey district court.

“That would be to put my head down, and do the work,” he said. Quraishi added, “If I'm so fortunate to be confirmed to be the first, the goal is for me not to be the last.”

A county attorney from New Jersey, Julien Neals is the nominee to fill a seat on the U.S. District Court of New Jersey and WilmerHale partner Regina Rodriguez is the nominee for the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.

Neals said his parents, and the pride they have for their Newark, New Jersey community, were his driving influences to become a public servant. Rodriguez paid tribute to her grandmother, who was forced to flee California when Rodriguez’s mother was very young, “when the internment order came.” 

“They were ordered to gather their belongings into what they could carry in suitcases,” Rodriguz said. “After the internment, my grandmother had heard that there was still discrimination against Japanese in California, but she had heard that the governor in Colorado was welcoming, and so they moved the family to Colorado in Denver, and that has been the beginning of the legacy there.”

Booker complimented all the federal prospects on their “extraordinary American stories.”

These nominees were just the first half of the 11 that Biden submitted last month to fill vacant seats in federal district and circuit courts, keeping to his promise to diversify the halls of government from the White House on down.

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