Biden releases first wave of judicial nominees

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Marianne LeVine, Laura Barrón-López, Josh Gerstein and Quint Forgey
·6 min read
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President Joe Biden announced his first slate of judicial nominees Tuesday, tapping a diverse pool of 11 candidates for the federal bench.

Perhaps the most high-profile name on the White House’s list was Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia — a potential Supreme Court pick — whom Biden nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Biden announced two other federal appeals court nominations: Tiffany Cunningham, a partner at the law firm Perkins Coie LLP, for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit; and Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, a partner at the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder, for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

The list of nominees offers the first glimpse of Biden’s plans to shape the federal judiciary after promising during the 2020 campaign to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court, should he get the chance. The appointments will also provide a test for Senate Democrats who must lead the often-contentious judicial confirmation process in a chamber divided 50-50, with little room for political error.

Biden’s three picks for the circuit court vacancies are African American women. Among his other nominees are “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,” the White House said.

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

Biden nominated seven candidates for district court vacancies, including two nominees for the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland: Judge Deborah Boardman, a U.S. Magistrate Judge for the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, and Judge Lydia Griggsby, a Judge on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

Biden similarly nominated two candidates for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey: Julien Neals, County Counsel and Acting County Administrator for Bergen County, and Judge Zahid N. Quraishi, a United States Magistrate Judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

Other district court nominees included Judge Florence Y. Pan, an Associate Judge on the Superior Court for the District of Columbia, for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia; Regina Rodriguez, a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, for the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado; and Margaret Strickland, a name partner at McGraw & Strickland LLC, for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico.

Finally, Biden also nominated Judge Rupa Ranga Puttagunta, an Administrative Judge for the D.C. Rental Housing Commission, for the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

Senate Democrats vowed to move swiftly on the nominees. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the Senate would act on hearings and confirmations to "significantly mitigate the influence of Donald Trump’s unqualified, right-wing judges." Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in particular praised Jackson-Akiwumi for her experience as a former public defender, saying she would add "much-needed demographic diversity back to the Seventh Circuit."

A senior administration official who spoke with reporters Tuesday morning stressed the professional diversity of the entire slate of nominees, touting a concerted effort to tap public defenders and civil rights attorneys for the bench.

"We believe this represents a paradigm shift in the types of people who can see themselves on the federal bench," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We're excited and proud to have four nominees today who have served as public and federal defenders."

Biden, a former chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, begins his presidency with 68 judicial vacancies — seven appellate court vacancies and 61 district court vacancies. That number of vacancies is fewer than what former President Donald Trump inherited upon entering the White House. Trump had an open Supreme Court seat, 86 district court seats and 17 circuit court seats to fill.

After Senate Republicans confirmed more than 200 judges during Trump’s presidency — a confirmation juggernaut that GOP leaders took pride in — Democrats and progressive groups are vowing to exert their own influence on the federal bench.

Biden’s announcement of 11 picks comes amid as many Democrats have concluded that former President Barack Obama was too sluggish in addressing the courts. Obama announced his first judicial pick on March 17, 2009, followed by two additional picks on April 2 of that year.

Progressive groups were quick to commend Biden's list. Brian Fallon, executive director of Demand Justice, praised Biden's announcement, particularly his selection of Jackson.

"Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is a rising star whose time on the Court of Appeals may prove a stepping stone," Fallon said. "She and the other public defenders and civil rights lawyers in this group are exactly the kind of judges we need to rebalance our courts." He added that progressives still need to pressure home state senators to recommend corporate lawyers and prosecutors for federal judgeships.

In an effort to rally support behind their new nominees the White House held a call Tuesday with leaders of civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, the National Urban League and National Action Network. They asked the civil rights groups to amplify the diverse judicial nominations.

Obama managed to get out one appeals court nomination earlier in March of his first term, but the Biden administration official insisted that the picks announced Tuesday put their pace now ahead of all predecessors.

"This is an unprecedentedly fast start for any president in U.S. history on judicial nominations," said the official.

Trump faced a comparatively unusual situation as he came into office: a vacant Supreme Court seat, held open by Senate Republicans who refused to act on Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Trump tapped now-Justice Neil Gorsuch for that slot on Feb. 1, 2017. Trump’s first pick for a lower court came for an appeals court on March 21.

Carrie Severino, president of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, criticized Biden's list Tuesday, saying that the president "has been working overtime to appease the far left, and we can expect his judges to rubber stamp their extreme radical agenda."

The Biden aide who spoke with reporters Tuesday invoked Trump's ample record of confirmations, while urging that the Senate move quickly on the new judicial nominees.

"We are optimistic that they will get bipartisan support, and that their nominations will be handled fairly and expeditiously by the Senate, just as the nominations of the last administration were," the official said.

Biden's announcement of the judicial picks effectively puts them in line ahead of many Justice Department slots. The White House has yet to announce nominees for several Senate-confirmed DOJ posts.