WASHINGTON (AP) — For the Biden White House, a quartet of four female judges in Colorado encapsulates his mission when it comes to the federal judiciary.
Charlotte Sweeney is the first openly LGBT woman to serve on the federal bench west of the Mississippi River and has a background in workers’ rights. Nina Wang, an immigrant from Taiwan, is the first magistrate in the state to be elevated to a federal district seat.
Regina Rodriguez, who is Latina and Asian American, worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Veronica Rossman, who came from the former Soviet Union with her family as refugees, is the first former federal public defender to serve as a judge on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
With these four women who were confirmed in the first two years of President Joe Biden’s termthere is a breadth of personal and professional diversity that the White House and Democratic senators are encouraging in their quest to transform the judiciary.
“The nominations send a powerful message to the legal community that this kind of public service is open to a lot of people that it hasn’t been open to before,” Ron Klein, the White House chief of staff, told The Associated Press. “What it says to the general public is that if you end up in federal court for any reason, you’re much more likely to have a judge who understands where you’re coming from and who you are and what you’ve been through.”
Klein said that “having a more diverse federal bench in every way shows more respect for the American people.”
The White House and Democratic senators are ending the first two years of Biden’s presidency having appointed more federal judges than Biden’s two immediate predecessors. The fast clip reflects diligence to offset Donald Trump’s legacy of stocking the judiciary with young conservatives that have often been missing in racial diversity.
So far, 97 lifetime federal judges have been confirmed under Biden, a figure that surpasses both Trump (85) and Barack Obama (62) at this point in their presidencies, according to data from the White House and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office. D.N.Y. The 97 from the Biden presidency include Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first black woman on that court, as well as 28 circuit court judges and 68 circuit court judges.
Three out of four justices selected by Biden and confirmed by the Senate in the past two years are women. About two-thirds were people of color. Biden’s slate includes 11 black women on the powerful circuit court, more than those appointed under all previous presidents combined. There have also been 11 former public defenders appointed to district courts, also more than all of Biden’s predecessors combined.
“This is a story about writing a new chapter for the federal judiciary, with truly extraordinary people representing the widest possible kinds of diversity” said Paige Herwig, a senior White House adviser.
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The White House has prioritized judicial nominations from the start, with Biden’s transition staff soliciting names of potential Democratic senatorial picks in late 2020. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, quickly moved nominations through hearings and Schumer take the time to vote.
Particular emphasis has been placed on nominees for the appeals courts, where most federal cases end, and those coming from states with two Democratic senators who might find consensus easier in a process where there are still considerable respect for home country officials.
Democrats hope to accelerate the pace of confirmation next year, a goal more easily achieved by a 51-49 Senate vote that would give them a slim majority in committees. In the past two years, a vote on some of Biden’s more contentious judicial nominations would have blocked committee votes, requiring more procedural steps that ate up valuable Senate time.
Schumer said he also hopes to appoint more justices to appeals courts that have shifted to the right under Trump, an effort the majority leader described as rebalancing those courts.
“Trump has loaded the bench with hard-right MAGA judges who are not only out of step with the American people, but out of step with the Republican Party,” Schumer said in an interview using a 2016 Trump campaign transcript .the slogan “Make America Great Again.”
Schumer added: “We had a mission, it’s not just a bias. It was a mission to try to restore that balance.
Despite their limited power to derail Biden’s election in the judiciary, some Republicans have fought fiercely against many of them, arguing that their views are outside the legal mainstream, despite Democrats’ arguments to the contrary. An uncertain 50-50 Senate, where Schumer’s plans were often thwarted by illness or absence, meant several Biden nominations languished for months and were never confirmed before the Senate adjourned this year.
Democrats also say certain judicial nominees, particularly women of color, have been unfairly targeted by their GOP critics, leading to tense battles on the Judiciary Committee.
“Republicans just have a problem with that. Not all, some do,” Durbin said in an interview. “And when you call them out on it… ‘Why are women of color consistently the target of your ire?’ and they can’t answer.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., a member of the committee, said Biden’s choices were “very, very left-wing, but unapologetically.” He said Durbin’s claims about Republicans were “absurd.”
“I think the president has made a commitment to his base that he’s going to make people who share a very left-wing worldview, who are generally quite critical of, for example, the criminal justice system, think that it’s systemically racist,” Hawley said. .
Despite the strengthened Democratic majority, the White House may still face some challenges when it comes to nominating and confirming judges over the next two years.
For example, Biden has done little to reduce the number of district court vacancies in states that have two Republican senators, confirming only one such person: Steven Locher, now a judge in the Southern District of Iowa. Senators still cling to a practice that allows home state senators a virtual veto over district court decisions — a process known colloquially as the “blue slip” — and Democrats are facing increased pressure from advocates to ditch the tradition. claiming it only allows for Republican obstructionism.
For example, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin earlier this year blocked action against William Pocan, a nominee to serve in the Eastern District of Wisconsin, after initially recommending him as part of a bloc of White House nominees. Durbin said he would reconsider the current “blue pass” practice if he saw systemic abuse by senators, particularly based on a candidate’s race, gender or sexual orientation.
But cases like Pokan’s are rare, Durbin said, and other influential Republicans afford the Biden White House some deference when it comes to judges.
“I can’t think of a system where the Republicans get all their judges and the Democrats get none of theirs,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who will be the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee next year. “It’s not a viable system.”
One issue Biden is reluctant to address: the makeup of the Supreme Court.
Any push to change the nation’s highest court, even on a minor level, has found little traction in the White House, with Biden aides instead emphasizing the president’s push to nominate federal judges as the best and most essential way to ensuring a democratic legacy in the judiciary.
As Biden takes office in 2021, calls for changes to the Supreme Court have grown louder, after Trump named three new justices who tilted the court’s composition far to the right.
In June, a 6-3 conservative majority overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, removing constitutional protections for abortion that had existed for nearly 50 years. He did this despite the majority of people in the United States believing that abortion should be legal. During the same term, the justices also weakened gun control and limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to manage climate change.
Surveys show a decline in approval and respect for the court. A Gallup poll found that Americans have the lowest level of trust in the judiciary in 50 years.
Biden spoke about the rulings and argued that the court is more of an “advocacy group these days.” But he did not accept calls to expand the court or even to subject the justices to a code of conduct that binds other federal judges. He has not spoken publicly about a study he commissioned into the future of the Supreme Court, which ended last year and proposed term limits, mandatory retirement and codes of judicial ethics as ways to restore trust in the institution.
White House officials also declined to comment on potential changes, though those advocating for change believe the pressure will intensify this term as voting rights, clean water, immigration and student loan forgiveness loans are before the judges.
“I would not in any way minimize the progress and the importance of what President Biden is doing in the lower courts,” said Chris Kang of Demand Justice, an advocacy group leading the effort to expand the court. “But at the same time, we have to look at the underlying problem, which is the Supreme Court, and what can be done to fix the problems.”
For now, the focus of the White House it will rest upon the people who sit in the courts.
It is a particularly significant achievement for Biden, a former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and for Klein, who was Biden’s top adviser on that committee and a lawyer who worked on judicial nominations in the Clinton White House.
“With all due respect to my predecessors, I’m sure this is a higher priority for me,” said Klein, who meets weekly with the judicial nominations team. But, referring to Biden, Klein added, “The fact that he’s making it such a priority makes it a big priority for me.”