WASHINGTON — In his four years as president, Donald Trump appointed 226 judges to the federal courts, including three Supreme Court justices. Now President Biden is set to exert his own influence on the composition of the nation’s courts, with 11 nominations to circuit and district courts announced on Tuesday.
“This trailblazing slate of nominees draws from the very best and brightest minds of the American legal profession,” Biden said in a White House statement that also praised the nominees — his first — for their “broad diversity of background, experience, and perspective.”
Among the 11 nominees were three Black women — including one, U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is seen as Biden’s likely first nominee to the Supreme Court, once an opening on that court arises. Her elevation to the influential D.C. circuit court, which was widely expected, will put her within literal and figurative walking distance of the highest court in the land.
(There is, of course, no telling when a Supreme Court vacancy will emerge, but there has been increasing pressure on Justice Stephen Breyer to retire, so that the 82-year-old reliable liberal can be replaced by a younger progressive while Democrats still have a majority in the Senate.)
Progressives cheered the nominations. “We commend President Biden for nominating stellar lawyers to serve on our nation’s federal courts,” said the Alliance for Justice, a group that has advocated for Democrats’ judicial picks. “Today’s nominees embody the demographic and professional diversity and forward-thinking that will ensure justice is served to the American people when they enter a courtroom.”
In its announcement of the nominations, the White House highlighted the fact that one of the nominees, Zahid Quraishi, now a New Jersey magistrate judge, would be “the first Muslim American federal judge in U.S. history.” Quraishi also served in the U.S. military’s judicial corps and was stationed in Iraq.
Two of the nominees, Rupa Ranga Puttagunta and Florence Y. Pan, are women of Asian descent. Their nominations come at a time when Asian Americans are facing attacks across the nation, including a killing spree in Atlanta. Elected officials and activists from the Asian American community have asked Biden for greater representation in his administration.
Trump tended to favor white males for judicial nominations, though he did successfully appoint a woman, Amy Coney Barrett, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Another common trait of Trump’s nominees was their youth, meaning they will be on the federal bench for decades to come.
The aggressive pace of judicial nominations during Trump’s four years was set by White House counsel Don McGahn and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, then the majority leader, as well as Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republicans on the Judiciary Committee. The confirmations were seen by conservatives as a signature achievement of the Trump presidency.
Grassley, now the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking member, told Yahoo News in a statement that the committee “must evaluate each nominee on his or her merits and qualifications. The committee should give them a hard look to see if they have the experience, the temperament, and the commitment to the Constitution necessary to be a federal judge. We should neither be a rubber stamp, nor should we oppose nominees as a matter of course, as many Democrats did during the Trump administration.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a senior Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee, welcomed news of the nominations. “I am pleased to see the White House act swiftly to nominate judges to help restore the federal bench after four years of special-interest court-packing,” he said in a statement to Yahoo News. “Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell let big Republican donors stock the federal courts with judges to rule reliably for those big-donor interests. It will take determined effort to expose and undo the damage done by that court-packing machine.”
Leading Biden’s inaugural batch of nominees — her name was first among those announced, a small but telling sign — was Jackson, who currently serves on the D.C. district court. Biden has nominated her to serve on the D.C. circuit court, sometimes regarded as the second-most-important court in the country after the Supreme Court, because many cases of national significance are heard in its courtrooms.
The seat Jackson is expected to occupy, should she be confirmed, was previously held by Merrick Garland, who now serves as U.S. attorney general. Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s second Supreme Court pick, also sat on the D.C. circuit court. Biden committed to selecting a Black woman for the Supreme Court, a promise that helped him earn the crucial endorsement of Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., during last year’s contentious Democratic presidential primaries. That endorsement from one of the leading Black legislators on Capitol Hill helped Biden win the South Carolina primary and, in the weeks that followed, to consolidate support from both centrist and left-leaning Democrats.
Barack Obama faced some criticism during his presidency for not pushing more aggressively to have the Senate confirm his judicial nominees. Unable to surmount Republican intransigence, he left office with more than 100 openings for his successor, Trump.
A vacancy on the Supreme Court, which Obama had intended to fill with Garland, was one of those openings. McConnell blocked Garland’s confirmation at the time.
Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the 1980s and 1990s, and while it is unclear just how much of a hand he will have in guiding the nominations, it is highly unlikely he will let them languish. The committee does include several Republicans who are expected to seek the 2024 nomination for president, including Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. They could all challenge the nominees in profile-raising ways, much as then-Sen. Kamala Harris did with Kavanaugh and Barrett when she sat on the same committee.
Hearings for the 11 nominees have not yet been scheduled.
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