Joe Biden has announced a “trailblazing” set of federal judicial nominees, 11 picks including three Black women.
Ketanji Brown Jackson, a US district judge, was nominated on Tuesday to replace attorney general Merrick Garland on the influential US appeals court for the District of Columbia circuit.
In 2016, Garland was nominated for the supreme court by Barack Obama but blocked from even receiving a hearing by Republicans determined to fill the vacancy themselves.
It was a hugely dramatic gambit by then Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, as he set out to transform the federal judiciary. With McConnell’s help, Donald Trump was able to do so.
On the campaign trail last year, Biden pledged to name the first Black woman to the supreme court. Jackson, who regularly clashed with the Trump administration, now moves into that spotlight. Many liberals are eyeing retirement for Stephen Breyer, at 82 the oldest member of the court, for whom Jackson once clerked.
When she was sworn in as a district judge, in May 2013, Breyer delivered the oath.
“She sees things from different points of view,” he said, “and she sees somebody else’s point of view and understands it.”
In December, Biden asked senators for a diverse slate of possible judicial picks.
“We are particularly focused on nominating individuals whose legal experiences have been historically underrepresented on the federal bench,” he said, “including those who are public defenders, civil rights and legal aid attorneys and those who represent Americans in every walk of life.”
His first set of picks, which the Washington Post called “the largest and earliest batch … by a new administration in decades”, also includes the first Muslim named to a district court.
In a statement to the Post, Biden said: “This trailblazing slate of nominees draws from the very best and brightest minds of the American legal profession.
“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.”
Nomination hearings could begin in April. Biden and the Democratic Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, have work to do.
McConnell and Trump placed three justices on the supreme court, giving it a 6-3 conservative majority. But the extensive reshaping of the judiciary below the highest court could be their most lasting legacy.
Observers have noted, for example, that though punitive voting rights restrictions being passed in Republican-led states are being challenged in court, the judiciary that will hear such cases is heavily staffed with conservatives.
McConnell was proud of his ruthlessness, telling Fox News there was one reason so many vacancies were left for Trump to fill.
“I’ll tell you why,” he said, in December 2019. “I was in charge of what we did the last two years of the Obama administration.”
Last April, he told an interviewer his “motto for the year is leave no vacancy behind”.
Trump’s success contributed to his strength at the polls. In 2019, Josh Blackman, a professor at the South Texas College of Law, told the Guardian: “Not all conservatives are happy with a lot of things Trump has done, but on judges he’s killing it. It’s an across-the-board success that we’ve seen in this area.”
Biden must now attempt to begin to redress the balance.
On Tuesday he also named Candace Jackson-Akiwumi for the Chicago-based seventh circuit and Tiffany Cunningham for the federal circuit in Washington.
If confirmed, Zahid Quraishi, a New Jersey judge, will be the first Muslim American on a district court. Among other appointments, Florence Pan will if confirmed be the first Asian American woman on the DC district court, while Lydia Griggsby will be the first black woman on the Maryland district court.
Judge Rupa Ranga Puttagunta, a Washington DC local judge of Indian ancestry, is nominated for DC superior court.