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Biden announces first slate of judicial nominees with history-making picks

▶ Watch Video: Federal judges announce plans to retire, opening court vacancies for Biden to fill

Washington — President Biden on Tuesday rolled out his first slate of judicial nominees, announcing candidates with diverse backgrounds and professional qualifications as he begins to make his own stamp on the nation’s district and circuit courts.

Of the president’s 11 judicial picks, three set to be nominated to the federal district courts would make history if confirmed by the evenly divided the Senate. The White House said the candidates underscore Mr. Biden’s commitment to diversity on the federal bench.

“This trailblazing slate of nominees draws from the very best and brightest minds of the American legal profession,” Mr. Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, 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 president intends to nominate three Black women to fill vacancies on a trio of circuit courts: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Court of Appeals to the District of Columbia Circuit; Tiffany Cunningham to the U.S. Court of Appeals to the Federal Circuit; and Candace Jackson-Akiwumi to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson listens to arguments as local high school students observe a reenactment of a landmark Supreme Court case at the U.S. Court of Appeals on December 18, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The move brings Mr. Biden one step closer to fulfilling a campaign pledge of putting an African-American woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. As a presidential candidate, Mr. Biden vowed to appoint the first Black woman to the high court in the event of a vacancy. 

Jackson, a judge on the federal district court in the District of Columbia, was widely considered a leading pick to the D.C. Circuit, which is considered the nation’s second most-powerful court and a springboard to the Supreme Court. Both Jackson and Jackson-Akiwumi worked as public defenders earlier in their legal careers.

Jackson has been touted as a potential Supreme Court nominee as Justice Stephen Breyer, 82, appointed to the high court by Bill Clinton, is facing pressure from liberal and Democratic groups to step down in order to ensure that a Democratic president can name a successor.

In addition to announcing nominees to the circuit courts, Mr. Biden also revealed his candidates to fill open seats on federal district courts in Maryland, New Jersey, the District of Columbia and New Mexico, as well as the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

Three of Mr. Biden’s nominees to the district courts would make history if confirmed by the Senate: Judge Zahid Quraishi, tapped for the district court in New Jersey, would be the first Muslim-American federal judge; Judge Florence Pan would be the first Asian-American woman on the district court in D.C.; and Judge Lydia Griggsby would be the first woman of color to serve as a federal judge in Maryland.

With 72 vacancies on the federal courts and another 28 seats set to become open in the coming weeks and months, Mr. Biden has been under pressure to prioritize judicial nominees and mount his own effort to reshape the federal bench after former President Donald Trump succeeded in appointing more than 230 judges to the courts, most of them white men.

The president has also been pushed by progressive groups to select nominees with not only diverse backgrounds, but also an array of legal experience, including public defenders, civil rights lawyers and legal aid attorneys.

A senior administration official told reporters that Mr. Biden has put forth his first batch of nominees faster than his three most-recent predecessors, and the White House is optimistic the president’s candidates will enjoy bipartisan support.

The official called Mr. Biden’s picks “a paradigm shift in the types of people who can see themselves on the federal bench.” 

Filling judicial vacancies is a top priority for Mr. Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who once chaired two Supreme Court confirmation hearings and had a role in former President Barack Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. 

Mr. Biden has indicated a commitment to judicial picks that deviated from traditional legal backgrounds. White House counsel Dana Remus sent Democratic senators a letter in December stressing the new administration’s focus on naming judges who “represent Americans in every walk of life.”

Remus is leading the review of potential nominees, a process that is expected to continue in the coming months with the announcement of more picks. But Democrats have fewer vacancies to fill given that Mr. Trump nominated more than 230 names to the federal judiciary with the help of then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who devoted a record among of Senate floor time to filling judicial vacancies. Mr. Trump inherited more than 100 open seats on the federal bench when he took office after the pace of judicial confirmations slowed considerably during Mr. Obama’s final months in office.

With the Senate split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, and Vice President Kamala Harris casting tie-breaking votes, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin will be key to ushering Mr. Biden’s judicial picks through the Senate. 

When Republicans were in power during Mr. Trump’s administration, nominations to the federal circuit courts moved forward despite unreturned or negative “blue slips” from home-state senators. A blue slip refers to the piece of paper on which senators indicate their support or opposition for a nominee for a position in their state. For district court nominees, positive blue slips were required from both home-state senators for a nominee to receive a confirmation hearing.

A Democratic aide to the Senate Judiciary Committee told CBS News in February that Durbin, of Illinois, has said numerous times there can’t be one set of rules for Republican nominees and another set for Democratic nominees. The aide also noted that for district court nominees, which required positive blue slips from both home-state senators to proceed, Democrats worked in good faith with the Trump administration to identify consensus district court nominees in blue and purple states, and expect Republicans to do the same.

Tim Perry contributed reporting.

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