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Biden’s first slate of judicial nominees aims to quickly boost diversity in federal courts

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is among President Biden’s first slate of 11 judicial nominees. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

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.

“This trailblazing slate of nominees draws from the very best and brightest minds of the American legal profession,” Biden said in a statement. “Each is deeply qualified and prepared to deliver justice faithfully under our Constitution and impartially to the American people — and together they represent the broad diversity of background, experience, and perspective that makes our nation strong.”

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.

Top White House officials have said that judicial nominations are a priority. They are attempting to fill vacancies more quickly — in part responding to criticism that President Barack Obama acted slowly — and use them as a party rallying cry in a way that Republicans have done for decades.

By this point in his first term, Obama had made only one judicial nomination. Trump, known for his record-setting pace of nominations, had picked two.

President George H.W. Bush had made two appellate court picks and three district court picks by this point in his term, while Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan hadn’t announced any. President George W. Bush also hadn’t named anyone, although on May 9, 2001, he announced 11 for the appeals courts.

The Washington Post reported last month that the Biden administration is also following a Trump practice to speed up the process, forgoing the American Bar Association review of candidates in advance of formal nominations. Biden still has nine other vacancies to fill on the circuit courts and more than 80 current and future openings at the District Court level. The Senate Judiciary Committee could hold hearings on the nominations by late April.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the committee chairman, said in a statement that he would move “expeditiously” on the nominations.

“These highly qualified and diverse nominees are clearly worthy to be considered for these important appointments,” Durbin said.

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.

For other District Court openings, Biden selected Julien Neals, a county counsel and acting Bergen County administrator, to serve in New Jersey; Regina Rodriguez, a former federal prosecutor, to serve in Colorado; and in New Mexico, Margaret Strickland, a former president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

High court steppingstone?

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.”

Before becoming a judge, Jackson spent more time writing briefs than representing clients in the courtroom, making her well suited for the cerebral work of the D.C. Circuit, which involves less day-to-day case management than District Court.

“She can turn complex issues into something understandable and readable and tell a story. That’s not the easiest thing to do,” said A.J. Kramer, the longtime federal public defender in Washington, who was her boss.

Biden moves quickly to make his mark on federal courts after Trump’s record judicial nominations

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.

“However busy or essential a presidential aide might be, and whatever their proximity to sensitive domestic and national-security projects, the President does not have the power to excuse him or her from taking an action that the law requires,” Jackson wrote in a 118-page opinion. “Fifty years of say so within the Executive branch does not change that fundamental truth.”

The case, twice appealed to a full panel of the D.C. Circuit, is still pending as the Biden administration and House Democrats try to negotiate a possible settlement.

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.

In 2018, Jackson struck down key provisions of Trump administration orders aimed at making it easier to fire employees and weaken their representation. While the president has the power to issue executive orders related to federal labor relations, “no such orders can operate to eviscerate the right to bargain collectively as envisioned” in the federal labor-management relations statute, she wrote. The collective bargaining process, she added, “is not a cutthroat death match.”

A unanimous D.C. Circuit panel the next year vacated the ruling and said the District Court lacked jurisdiction to decide the case.

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At sentencing, where tensions are high, Jackson has shown empathy and pragmatism from the bench as she did in the case of Edgar Maddison Welch, the North Carolina man who charged into Comet Ping Pong with a military-style rifle and revolver seeking to investigate a viral Internet rumor. The judge said she was handing down a four-year prison term to guard against vigilante justice.

“I hope you understand and see how much people have suffered because of what you did,” Jackson said, adding, “I am truly sorry you find yourself in the position you are in, because you do seem like a nice person who on your own mind was trying to do the right thing. But that does not excuse reckless conduct and the real damage that it caused.”

'Bends toward justice'

Born in Washington, Jackson was raised in Florida by parents who began their careers as public school teachers. Her interest in law was sparked at the dining room table, where as a preschooler she tackled coloring books beside her father, who was studying law and went on to become the local school board’s attorney.

The debate team took Jackson for the first time to Harvard University, where she went on to study government, earn a law degree, join an improv comedy group and participate in drama, where she was once paired with classmate Matt Damon. Harvard was also where she met her husband, Patrick, a surgeon at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

At the courthouse, Jackson is known for her boisterous laugh and down-to-earth demeanor. She commiserates about the challenges of being a working parent to two daughters, and she is fond of reality TV shows such as “American Idol.”

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.’ ”

Her work on the seven-person, bipartisan body will also serve her well on the appeals court that typically reviews cases with three-judge panels, said Rachel E. Barkow, a Harvard Law School classmate who served with Jackson on the commission. Most of the sentencing policy decisions were unanimous, and Jackson “helped foster that environment.”

“She was able to shine in that setting,” said Barkow, vice dean of New York University Law School. “She used the information she’d studied to find common ground for people.”

Jackson’s experience with the criminal justice system is personal, too. When she was in high school, her uncle was sentenced to life in prison under a three-strikes law after a conviction for a low-level drug crime, The Post’s editorial page first reported. He was granted clemency by Obama after serving 30 years.

At Jackson’s formal investiture in May 2013, Breyer delivered the oath and praised Jackson not just for her intellect and work ethic.

“That’s part of it,” he said, adding that “she sees things from different points of view, and she sees somebody else’s point of view and understands it. We all feel that’s our judicial family. That’s what we’re here for.”