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

Washington — The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved its first group of President Biden’s judicial nominees, setting up votes from the full Senate on two of his picks to the federal circuit courts and three to the U.S. district courts.

The panel advanced the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the influential U.S. Court of Appeals to the District of Columbia Circuit by a vote of 13 to 9, as well as Candace Jackson-Akiwumi to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by a near party-line vote of 12-10. 

The Democratic-led committee also gave bipartisan approval of the nominations of Judge Zahid Quraishi and Julien Neals to the U.S. district court in New Jersey, and Regina Rodriguez to the federal district court in Colorado.

Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas were the only Republicans to join their Democratic colleagues in supporting Jackson’s nomination, while Graham was the lone GOP senator who voted to advance Jackson-Akiwumi’s nomination.

Jackson, currently a judge on the federal district court in D.C., is considered a frontrunner for the Supreme Court if a vacancy arises. If confirmed by the Senate, she will fill the seat on the D.C. Circuit vacated by now-Attorney General Merrick Garland.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Wednesday, April 28, 2021.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Quraishi, meanwhile, would make history if his nomination is approved by the Senate as the first Muslim-American federal judge in U.S. history.

Ahead of the votes, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, claimed GOP senators have been “more deferential about a Democrat president’s ability to pick his judges,” but said “unless a circuit nominee can show me that he or show is affirmatively committed to the Constitution as originally understood, I don’t think that he or she should be confirmed.”

Mr. Biden unveiled his first batch of 11 judicial nominees in late March, three of whom would be in the history books if confirmed by the evenly divided Senate. The president has vowed to nominate candidates with diverse backgrounds and professional qualifications, and progressive activists largely believe his early slates of nominees have lived up to that pledge. 

Jackson and Jackson-Akiwumi, both Black women, have experience as public defenders, a profession legal groups say is underrepresented on the federal bench, for example.

Former President Donald Trump appointed more than 230 judges to the federal courts, including 54 to the circuit courts, reshaping the federal bench in his only term in office. Now, Mr. Biden has his chance to make his stamp on the judiciary.

There are currently 81 vacancies on the federal courts, and another 30 seats are set to become open.