Posted on April 6, 2021

Biden’s First Slate of Judicial Nominees Aims to Quickly Boost Diversity in Federal Courts

Ann E. Marimow and Matt Viser, Washington Post, March 29, 2021

President Biden announced his first slate of judicial nominees on Tuesday, elevating U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the influential appeals court in Washington to succeed Merrick Garland as part of the largest and earliest batch of court picks by a new administration in decades.

Jackson, often considered a contender to be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, is among Biden’s 11 nominations that include three Black women for appeals court vacancies and the first Muslim American to serve on a District Court. The group is designed to send a message about the administration’s desire for more diversity on the federal bench and how rapidly the president wants to put his mark on it.

Biden previously pledged to name the first Black woman to the high court, and his picks signal an early departure from the Trump administration, which successfully reshaped the federal courts with nominees who were overwhelmingly White and male.

The nominees come from diverse personal and professional backgrounds, including former public defenders, former prosecutors, sitting judges and attorneys at large law firms, according to the White House list. The average age of Biden’s picks is 48, potentially allowing the judges to serve for decades if confirmed.


In addition to Jackson’s nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Biden’s initial list includes Zahid N. Quraishi, a magistrate judge in New Jersey and former military prosecutor, who would be the nation’s first Muslim American on a District Court bench; Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, a former longtime federal public defender and current litigator in Washington, for the Chicago-based 7th Circuit; and Tiffany Cunningham, an intellectual-property lawyer in Chicago, for a spot on the Federal Circuit in Washington, where she once was a law clerk.

Both Jackson-Akiwumi and Cunningham would be the only Black judges on their respective courts, and Cunningham the first on the Federal Circuit. The president’s list also includes four Asian American nominees.

Liberal advocacy groups praised Biden’s picks and urged the Senate to move quickly to confirm the nominees.

“These nominees are an important step towards fixing our judiciary and creating more equal justice, especially after the ways in which the judiciary was reshaped over the last few years. They reflect and represent the incredible diversity of our country,” Lena Zwarensteyn of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said in a statement.


Biden’s first slate includes two nominees for the District Court in Maryland, Magistrate Judge Deborah Boardman and Judge Lydia Griggsby, who serves on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Griggsby, a former Senate staffer, would be the first woman of color to serve on Maryland’s District Court.

The president plans to renominate D.C. Superior Court Judge Florence Y. Pan for the opening created by Jackson’s elevation. Pan, who was previously picked in 2016, would become one of the first Asian American women to serve on the court. Rupa Ranga Puttagunta, an administrative law judge for the D.C. Rental Housing Commission, is Biden’s pick for D.C. Superior Court.


But the most widely anticipated nomination was the opening on the D.C. Circuit, which has been a steppingstone to the Supreme Court. Jackson is among those considered a possible successor to Justice Stephen G. Breyer, the high court’s oldest member. Jackson once clerked for Breyer.

Jackson’s nomination comes after Garland was confirmed this month to serve as attorney general. A former public defender and member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Jackson is known as a gifted writer and unflappable jurist who works long hours and has handled many types of cases. She rejected the Trump administration’s effort to block a congressional subpoena for testimony from former White House counsel Donald McGahn and sentenced the gunman who commandeered a pizza restaurant in Northwest Washington based on an online conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate.”


The nomination of a former public defender sends an important message, Kramer said, about the administration’s commitment to pick judges from a variety of professional backgrounds. Jackson, 50, has “a real commitment to equal justice for everybody and believes the criminal justice system ought to have integrity at every level,” he said.

With eight years on the bench, Jackson issued rulings against the Trump administration, with mixed results on appeal.

“Presidents are not kings,” Jackson declared in 2019, ordering Trump’s former White House counsel to comply with a House subpoena to testify about former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian election interference.


The same year, she issued a nationwide preliminary injunction that blocked the Trump administration from dramatically expanding its power to deport migrants who illegally entered the United States by using a fast-track deportation process. On appeal, the D.C. Circuit reversed, finding that expedited removal decisions are within the homeland security secretary’s discretion. The appeals court agreed with Jackson on other grounds and sent the case back for review.


Jackson’s career included a stint on the commission that shapes federal sentencing policies, where she worked alongside U.S. District Judge Patti B. Saris, for whom Jackson clerked after law school.

“She has a big-picture take on sentencing policy, which seeks to balance the policies of eliminating unwarranted disparity with the need to think in new ways about the proportionality of sentencing,” Saris said at Jackson’s formal swearing-in ceremony.

Saris recalled the hearing when the commission decided to make the reduction in penalties for drug-related offenses apply retroactively.

“Ketanji’s voice rang out with conviction in explaining that the decision really epitomized Martin Luther King’s famous metaphor: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ ”