WASHINGTON – Democrats on Wednesday began pushing forward President Biden’s first presidential candidates through the Senate Judiciary Committee, taking an important step to counter the influence of President Donald J. Trump by shifting federal courts towards the right.
In a stark and intentional contrast to Mr. Trump’s choices, the two circuit court candidates and the three district court candidates examined on Wednesday were all people of color with backgrounds that differed significantly from the candidates traditionally chosen by the presidents of both sides, including a focus on service. as a public defender.
Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and chairman of the committee, noted that none of the 54 appeals court judges selected by Mr. Trump was African American. Mr Biden’s candidates would steer the courts towards “impartiality, fairness and competence” while improving racial and professional diversity, Mr Durbin said.
“We need it in federal courts,” he said.
The main focus on Wednesday was on two candidates for federal courts of appeals – usually the last judgment for major Supreme Court cases – Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, chosen for the United States Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit, and Candace Jackson-Akiwumi for the Seventh Circuit US Court of Appeals in Chicago. Both are black. Justice Jackson, currently a Washington District Court judge, is being seen as a potential future Supreme Court candidate by Democrats, and Ms. Jackson-Akiwumi is said to be the only black judge in the Seventh Circuit.
Both have experience as federal public defenders representing criminal defendants, and Ms. Jackson-Akiwumi spent a decade in Chicago representing hundreds of people who couldn’t afford their own lawyers. Presidents have often avoided appointing public defenders – and others have faced resistance from the Senate – due to their client lists, instead preferring candidates with a prosecution track record for judge positions.
Democrats and progressive activists say the lack of defense expertise among judges is detrimental to the courts and that public defenders should not be penalized for providing guaranteed representation by the courts.
“We have to differentiate that or else we’ll never have anyone in these jobs who stood up for customers,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota.
But Republicans have pointed to their defense experience in an attempt to tarnish Mr Biden’s candidates. Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton noted that Judge Jackson had represented an accused terrorist held at Guantánamo Bay Prison, although she noted that she had been assigned to the case and could not remember the name of the accused.
Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, urged Ms Jackson-Akiwumi on her defense of an accused arms dealer who bought guns in Indiana and then sold them illegally in the Chicago area. It has repeatedly emphasized that it is only providing the representation to which defendants are entitled under the federal system.
“I stand by my commitment and my oath as a lawyer, which is to zealously represent all those in need of federal representation in our federal courts,” Ms. Jackson-Akiwumi said.
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Judge Jackson said she believed the defense experience could be an advantage and “not only help the judge himself to consider the facts and circumstances of the case, but also help the system as a whole. in terms of interaction with the accused. ”
Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn highlighted the emphasis Democrats place on diversity and asked candidates what role their race would play in how they conducted themselves as judges. Both said they did not believe race would influence how they interpret the law, but that their different life experiences could be beneficial, including creating more public trust in the courts.
“I also think that demonstrating diversity of all types helps us achieve a role model outcome for young students, law students and young lawyers,” Ms. Jackson-Akiwumi said. “It is important for anyone who aspires to public service to know that the way is open to everyone.
Biden’s White House and Senate Democrats are trying to act quickly to fill large vacancies in Federal Court after Mr. Trump placed more than 220 Tory judges in federal courts with the help of Senator Mitch McConnell of the Kentucky, which has made court confirmations a high priority. while he was the majority leader. He said he was not surprised at the Democratic push.
“This is what I would do if I were them,” McConnell said in a recent interview. “Pick as many outstanding Liberals as you can and try to get them confirmed as quickly as possible. I wrote the playbook about it. I can’t fault them for taking a look at how it was done. I think it was done very effectively.
Both candidates declined to comment on whether to expand the Supreme Court or whether they would accept a nomination to an expanded court – a proposal progressive groups are pushing, which Republicans fiercely oppose.
Highlighting the progressives’ campaign, Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina called the appointments the result of a concerted effort to pressure Biden to appoint liberal judges in court. He suggested that Judge Jackson had spoken out against the Trump administration in a high-profile case to bolster his nomination prospects. She denied the claim.
“I know full well what my obligations are,” Judge Jackson said. “My duty is not to rule with partisan advantage in mind. I’ve always been an independent judge and I think that’s one of the reasons the president honored me with my appointment.
Mr Biden has vowed to nominate the first black woman to the Supreme Court, and Justice Jackson’s prospects as a future candidate could make Republicans reluctant to vote for her. Even if all Republicans oppose the nominees, Democrats can sit them down if they stick together.
The district court judges considered on Wednesday were Regina M. Rodriguez for a seat in Colorado and Julien Xavier Neals and Zahid N. Quraishi for seats in New Jersey, which was deemed to have a critical number of court vacations. If confirmed, Mr. Quraishi, currently a federal magistrate, would be the first Muslim federal district judge.
“Frankly, I’d rather be the hundredth, if not the thousandth,” he says. “I understand what this means for the community.”