President Biden began a drive to reshape the federal courts on Tuesday with a burst of judicial nominations that put an emphasis on 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 nomination 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.
His nominees — led by Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson for the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia — included three African-American women for appeals court vacancies and candidates who, if confirmed by the Senate, would be the first federal judge who is Muslim, the first Asian-American woman to serve on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and the first woman of color to serve as a federal judge in Maryland.
“This trailblazing slate of nominees draws from the very best and brightest minds of the American legal profession,” Mr. Biden said in a statement. “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.”
The Chicago-based United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit is a case in point. After the only African-American judge serving on the 7th circuit 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 judicial picks were 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 lawyers with more nontraditional 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 former 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.
Among those named on Tuesday are nominees with experience as military and family court judges, a county administrator and an intellectual property lawyer.
For the 7th Circuit, Mr. Biden chose Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, an experienced litigator who was a federal public defender in Chicago for a decade, not a traditional résumé 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.
“It is critical that a diverse, qualified nominee be nominated for the 7th Circuit,” said Russ Feingold, the former Democratic senator from Wisconsin who now heads the American Constitution Society. “The 7th Circuit is currently all white judges and it is time to reverse that trend that was so accelerated by the Trump administration.”
Ms. Jackson-Akiwumi, currently a partner at the Washington law firm of Zuckerman Spaeder, is just one of the African-American candidates on Mr. Biden’s list, including 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 for nominations. With 68 slots now open and another 26 scheduled to become vacant later this year, liberal activists are encouraging the administration to be aggressive to counter the Mr. Trump’s choices, particularly since Democratic control of the Senate is up for grabs in next year’s midterm elections.
White House officials said Mr. Biden was moving more quickly than Mr. Trump and other former 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.
From the start, Mr. Biden’s White House has made clear that it intends to put judges with different types of backgrounds on the federal bench as quickly as it can. In a letter in December, the incoming White House counsel, Dana Remus, told Democratic senators that Mr. Biden would be looking for judges from groups historically underrepresented on the bench.
“White House Counsel Dana Remus has made clear that President Biden wants to nominate the most diverse judges in history — including diversity of professional background and experience representing individual Americans,” said Christopher Kang, a co-founder of the progressive group Demand Justice. “As long as Senate Democrats follow Remus’ letter, Biden will not only start to rebalance to our courts, but transform the judiciary by establishing a new mold for all Democratic presidents’ judicial nominees.”
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, graduating 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 Obama 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 the tradition by Democratic presidents of submitting names to the bar association before nominating them. The association will be free to issue judgments on those nominees, but only after the president has already made his selections public.
That could help Mr. Biden fill judicial vacancies more quickly, said several people familiar with the process. The president and his lawyers are keenly aware that Democratic control of the Senate may not last past the midterm elections in 2022, giving him a short window in which to make his mark on the judiciary.
“I think speed is paramount,” Mr. Eggleston said. “If I were them, I’d be full speed and just assume you are going to lose the Senate in two years. I don’t think that will happen, but that has to be their operating thought.”
Republicans said they know they are 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 for the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, who was an assistant U.S. Attorney and an Army judge advocate general; Judge Deborah Boardman for the Maryland district court, who was a federal public defender; and Judge Florence Y. Pan for the D.C. court, who has been a superior court judge in Washington since 2009.
Republicans will no doubt oppose some of the candidates but will not be able to derail Mr. Biden’s nominees if Democrats stay united. 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 heads 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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