President Biden today announced the first 11 judicial nominees of his term, a diverse list of names that he framed as a first step toward neutralizing the impact of his predecessor’s push to move the federal bench decidedly rightward.
Biden has already issued a slew of executive orders and enacted legislation seeking to turn back many of President Donald Trump’s conservative policies, but there may be no area in which Trump had a stronger effect than the courts.
Trump installed almost as many federal judges in four years as President Barack Obama had in his eight-year tenure. By the time he left office, Trump’s appointees accounted for nearly three out of every 10 judges on the federal bench.
Working closely with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, then the Republican majority leader, Trump also emphasized appointments to appeals courts, rather than lower-status district courts. He installed 54 judges in the appeals courts in four years, while Obama seated just one more than that across eight years. Nearly one-quarter of Trump’s appointees were appeals-court judges, a greater share than for any other recent president, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
Trump’s appointees were overwhelmingly white and male, and they skewed markedly young, part of his and McConnell’s strategy to leave a lasting imprint on the federal judicial system. Five out of six judges appointed by Trump were white, a higher rate than any president since George H.W. Bush. Three out of four were men.
“In terms of racial and ethnic diversity, Trump stood out in the sense that his appointees were overwhelmingly male and white,” John Gramlich, a senior writer at Pew who has conducted research into the impact of Trump’s appointments, said in an interview.
On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court if he got the chance. His first round of nominees at the appeals and district levels reflects a similar commitment; none are white men. And the commitment to diversity extends into their professional backgrounds: While Trump’s nominees were mostly prosecutors and corporate law partners, Biden has chosen a slate of lawyers and judges whose careers include civil rights litigation, public service and criminal defense.
Among the more consequential positions he has filled is at the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. Biden named Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder who previously represented hundreds of indigent clients as a federal public defender. If confirmed by the Senate, she would become the only Black jurist on the influential Seventh Circuit Court, after Trump passed up four opportunities to install a nonwhite judge to the court.
Biden also announced that he would seek to elevate Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is currently a district-court judge, to the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. She too has worked as a public defender, and has served as a Supreme Court clerk and later a corporate litigator.
In a statement released this morning, the White House emphasized the speed of its nominations, pointing out that no administration had named as many judicial nominees so early in its first term. “President Biden has had a career-long commitment to the strength of the federal judiciary, and that is reflected in the historically fast pace at which he has moved to fill vacancies on the federal bench,” the statement said.
But confirming the nominees will not necessarily be a painless task, as Democrats control only 50 seats in the Senate. “It’s pretty much the barest majority for them to get any nominations through,” Gramlich said. “Two years from now, if Republicans take back the Senate, it would become much more difficult for Biden.”
For now, the Democrats have one big advantage — courtesy of former Senator Harry Reid. As the Democratic majority leader for part of Obama’s presidency, Reid disallowed the filibuster on judicial appointments (while keeping it for votes on legislation), making it easier for the president to get his appointees confirmed.
When Trump became president, McConnell — who had little appetite for passing major legislation, but was keenly focused on the federal bench — took full advantage of his former foe’s maneuver. Now, with Biden and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York in the cockpit, Democrats are aiming to take back as much ground as they can.