The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday held its first hearing for President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees, a mix of people who set the tone for how this president wants to leave his mark on the nation’s federal courts: by adding much more diversity.
The committee heard from five of Biden’s court picks. All of them were people of color, and three of them were women. Their professional backgrounds were just as diverse and include public defense, prosecution, civil litigation, municipal law and military service.
Before anyone even testified, it was clear how different Biden’s first batch of judicial nominees was from the people that former President Donald Trump put forward during his administration. Of the 234 lifetime federal judges Trump appointed, 192 were white and 174 were men, according to data from the Federal Judicial Center, the research and education arm of the federal judiciary. Their professional backgrounds were equally homogeneous, with most being corporate lawyers and prosecutors.
“Looking at this slate of nominees, I’m struck that they not only bring qualifications that are extraordinary … but also demographic and professional diversity,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chair of the committee, said of Biden’s picks. “We need it on the federal bench.”
The four-hour hearing was surprisingly drama-free. Senators mostly focused on the first panel of nominees, U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and attorney Candace Jackson-Akiwumi. Both are African American women nominated to lifetime seats on U.S. appeals courts.
Durbin pointed out that Trump confirmed a whopping 54 appeals court judges as president, and that they all had something in common: “Not one of them was Black.”
Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is nominated to be a U.S. circuit judge for the District of Columbia Circuit, is sworn in to testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on pending judicial nominations on April 28 in Washington, D.C.
If confirmed, Jackson and Jackson-Akiwumi would be the first Black women confirmed to appeals courts in a decade. Jackson in particular has generated a lot of buzz over speculation that Biden may pick her to be his Supreme Court nominee, if and when a seat opens up. She’s currently his nominee to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has been a stepping stone for many Supreme Court nominees.
Oddly, and perhaps in a sign that they don’t see any real problems with Jackson’s record, Republicans on the committee spent an unusually significant amount of time asking her about a progressive judicial advocacy group, Demand Justice, and its support for expanding the Supreme Court.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) asked her repeatedly about the group and if she knew it was promoting her nomination. Jackson said she’d heard of the group, but that was about it.
“On their website, they say they advocate adding additional seats to the Supreme Court,” Cornyn said. “Do you think Congress should add additional seats to the Supreme Court?”
“Senator, as a sitting judge, I am bound by the Supreme Court and I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to comment on the structure or the size of the court any more than it would for me to comment on the court’s rulings,” Jackson said.
“Do you think the Supreme Court is broken?” Cornyn continued, referencing Demand Justice again.
“Senator, I’ve never said anything about the Supreme Court being broken,” Jackson replied. “Again, I’m not able to comment on the structure, the size, the functioning even of the Supreme Court.”
(Demand Justice Executive Director Brian Fallon seemed pleased that GOP senators were so focused on the group’s campaigns during the hearing.
“Republican senators’ repeated attacks on Demand Justice show they couldn’t seriously criticize the records of these two highly qualified nominees, so they went after our organization instead,” he said in a statement. “If Republicans feel this threatened by our work to restore balance to our court system, we must be doing something right.”)
When Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) was up, he asked Jackson only one question.
“Do you think the federal judicial system is systemically racist?” he asked.
“As a judge, I’m not looking at systemic effects,” Jackson said. “I don’t really have a frame of reference to answer a question about systemic racism, but I am happy that you are thinking about those things because they are in the province of the policymakers like yourself.”
Not a single Republican senator was in attendance for the second panel of nominees, all of whom were nominated to district court seats.
These nominees were Julien Xavier Neals, an African American nominee to a U.S. district court in New Jersey; U.S. Magistrate Judge Zahid Quraishi, a nominee to a U.S. district court in New Jersey who would make history, if confirmed, as the first Muslim federal judge; and Regina Rodriguez, a Latina nominee to U.S. district court in Colorado.
All five nominees now await their Senate confirmation hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.