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New federal judges in D.C., Va. and Md. show Biden’s push to diversify bench

Federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

A veteran prosecutor and two longtime public defenders were both confirmed by the U.S. Senate to federal judgeships in the D.C. region this week. The three new judges, along with others who recently took the bench, showcase efforts by the Biden administration to change the makeup of the federal judiciary.

“Biden pledged to nominate and confirm people who are diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ideology and particularly experience,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. But, he said, “there is a pattern” of heightened GOP opposition to candidates with backgrounds as public defenders and civil rights advocates.

Patricia Tolliver Giles, confirmed Tuesday, is the second Black woman to serve as a federal judge in Virginia. Before taking the bench, Giles spent nearly two decades as an assistant U.S. attorney in Alexandria. She dealt largely with major crimes, including murder cases involving the transnational MS-13 gang. At the start of her career, she clerked for Gerald Bruce Lee, a federal judge who retired in 2017 after decades of advocating greater diversity in the legal profession.

Michael Nachmanoff, confirmed Wednesday to the bench in Virginia, has been a magistrate judge since 2015. Before that, he was the chief public defender in the Eastern District of Virginia.

On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed another former public defender to the bench in D.C. federal court — Jia Cobb. A civil rights lawyer and Black woman, Cobb has brought numerous lawsuits against police alleging misconduct and excessive use of force.

Only a few dozen former public defenders are serving in the federal judiciary, but Biden — who briefly served as a public defender — has made a point of nominating more court-appointed defense attorneys to the bench.

He also nominated Lydia Griggsby, the first woman of color to become a U.S. district judge in Maryland, and Florence Pan, the first Asian American woman to serve as a judge in D.C. federal court.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, supported Giles, Griggsby and Pan and brought about a dozen Republicans with him. But Grassley criticized Cobb for arguing that “social history” should be used in statutory interpretation and Nachmanoff for seeking advice from a group that supports expanding the Supreme Court. Both got only a few Republican votes.

Most GOP senators, Tobias noted, have refused to support any of Biden’s judicial picks.

“There appears to be much lockstep voting even for well-qualified, mainstream nominees like” Giles and Nachmanoff, he said.

Pan was initially nominated in April 2016 to the federal bench in Washington by President Barack Obama, but the GOP-controlled Senate at the time did not vote on her nomination.

In one of her first hearings Wednesday, Pan took over the politically sensitive lawsuit brought by 2016 Trump campaign adviser Carter Page against the FBI, Justice Department and several former officials alleging they unlawfully surveilled and investigated him during the FBI’s Russia probe. A D.C. veteran, Pan offered to recuse herself from the case, saying she has been friends with a lawyer for defendant Lisa Page, a former FBI attorney.

Pan said she has known Page’s attorney, former Justice Department lawyer Amy Jeffress, for 27 years, attended her wedding, and met Page at a party. Pan will remain on the case if all parties consent. She is a former Justice and Treasury department lawyer, D.C. federal prosecutor and Superior Court judge.

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