A previous version of this story imprecisely referred to Justice Clarence Thomas’s opinions as often reflecting the thinking of White conservatives, rather than conservatives broadly. That reference has been removed.
Biden, 79, and Clyburn, 81, have been friends for decades, and the South Carolina lawmaker’s endorsement helped the former vice president overcome a string of damaging early-state losses to win the state’s Democratic primary in 2020, saving his political career and putting him on course to win the White House.
That victory has given Clyburn tremendous influence, both allies and critics say, marked by private dinners with Richmond and public interviews where he has made it clear whom he wants Biden to appoint to the Supreme Court.
Although Clyburn’s unabashed advocacy for U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs has quietly irked colleagues with differing opinions, the congressman insisted in an interview that his push is more suggestion than ultimatum. He said he’s earned the right to advocate for a Black woman who represents the values of the voters in his state — a product of public universities and academic scholarships who he says would garner bipartisan support.
“I always said it would be a plus, but it’s not a must,” Clyburn said of his support for Childs during an interview at his office in the U.S. Capitol last week. “I don’t believe in ultimatums. I don’t want nobody giving me one, and I’m not going to give anybody else one. I may be disappointed for the rest of my life, but I’m not going to give an ultimatum.”
Other Democrats without a decades-long relationship with Biden or a dinner invite say they worry that the friendship between two of the nation’s most powerful men will drown out their opinions of who should fill Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s Supreme Court seat. It’s a particular concern considering Biden and Clyburn both have reputations for embracing pragmatic, incremental policymaking over liberal causes with less chance of becoming law. Many critics spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering either.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday that while Biden is close to Clyburn and holds him “in high esteem,” the president is “going to consult broadly, and then he’s going to look at … credentials, review cases and make a decision about the right person to nominate for the court.”
D.C. Circuit Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and Leondra R. Kruger, a California Supreme Court justice, are widely considered Biden’s top two contenders. But Clyburn’s support has made Childs a surprising third finalist. South Carolina’s Republican senators, Lindsey O. Graham and Tim Scott, have also publicly praised her, bolstering Clyburn’s argument with their bipartisan support while making liberal members wary over her moderate views.
Clyburn has advocated for Childs to serve on the Supreme Court since the Obama era, touting a qualified judge with a background that resembles many of the people he sees in his district as opposed to the Ivy League-educated elites who routinely fill positions of prominence. Biden’s pick should add a diversity of life experience to the court, he said, in addition to race and gender.
“I’m not an elitist, and I do not appreciate my party being accused of elitism,” Clyburn said. “As one person said to me, when you’re looking for votes you can find your way to HBCU campuses and these [Black] communities, but when it’s time for the spoils to come, you can’t find your way down this way. That’s a problem,” he said, using an abbreviation for historically Black colleges and universities.
Clyburn has previously pushed for those closest to him to serve in higher government roles, often stressing how their backgrounds would bring a refreshing perspective. He encouraged Biden to put Richmond at the top of his presidential campaign, and urged the president — unsuccessfully — to tap then-Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) to lead the Agriculture Department, a position usually held by a White man. Fudge instead became the housing and urban development secretary. Biden also nominated Clyburn’s daughter to head a federal commission on Southern poverty.
Four members and roughly a dozen House Democratic aides privately speculated in interviews that Clyburn views his proximity to Biden as tied to his own legacy, helping influence both their paths through his informal advising.
While some liberals were frustrated that Clyburn’s push for Childs seems to represent an endorsement by the Congressional Black Caucus, a majority of the caucus’s members said in interviews they understand his desire to vouch for Black people who would not otherwise be serious parts of high-level conversations.
“We all respect his opinions and his recommendation, but the Congressional Black Caucus has not put out a particular name,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) said. “I don’t know if we’re going to individually or collectively be sending out recommendations. I know Mr. Clyburn has, but they’re all qualified.”
But more-liberal members of the caucus and of Congress say they wish Clyburn would use his proximity to the president to push harder for left-of-center legislation, including on police reform and voting rights, and to pressure stubborn Democratic senators to upend the filibuster.
But Clyburn blanched at the suggestion that he hasn’t done more than his part to push his party’s agenda, and said that the Democrats’ even split in the Senate is not something people should reasonably expect him to address.
“It’s a Senate thing. What the hell can I do about that? You want the bills passed in the House of Representatives? I’m the majority whip in the House. Every damn one of them passed the House,” Clyburn said. “If you’re going to blame any member of the Black Caucus … Cory Booker’s over there, so you can blame him. If the Senate passes [liberal legislation], I’ll have something to do with whether Joe Biden signs them.” Booker is a Democratic senator from New Jersey.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), a friend and ally of Clyburn’s for over 30 years, said even Clyburn’s critics respect his political instincts and his connection with a valuable but often disappointed subset of Democratic voters.
“Nobody that I’m aware of feels that opposing Clyburn’s nomination would be the wise thing to do,” he said. “If you know that a person has been vetted by Jim Clyburn, you know that person won’t go to the court and end up being a Clarence Thomas,” referring to the Black conservative justice.
‘Emily liked him’
Clyburn said his friendship with Biden was sparked by his late wife, Emily, a civil rights activist who was moved by Biden’s reaction to the tragic death of his wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash that also injured his two sons.
“Emily liked him,” Clyburn recalled. “She was highly sensitive to his experiences, how he reacted … and opted to go home every night” to eat dinner with his surviving sons. Clyburn has said he got to know Biden better as they allied themselves on Democratic issues and defended those causes in TV appearances. They often spoke about how two of the cases that made up the landmark Supreme Court integration case Brown v. Board of Education came from Delaware and South Carolina.
Decades later in June 2019, with President Donald Trump in the White House, Biden returned to South Carolina with 20 other Democratic candidates, seeking to woo mostly Black voters at Clyburn’s annual fish fry, an important ritual for those wanting to be president. Emily Clyburn was absent from the event as diabetes started to quickly overtake her.
James Clyburn left the fish fry around midnight and sat at his wife’s bedside as she underwent a special type of dialysis and gave her details of the night.
“I said to her, I see that we might have a tough time this year, being that over 20 people were running, and several of them are good friends of ours,” he recalls telling his wife, who responded that she didn’t care how many people were running or how many of them were friends. “Her reply to me was … if we want to win — in fact, I think she used the words ‘defeat Trump’ — we’ve got to nominate Joe Biden.”
Emily Clyburn died a few months later, in September 2019. A few months after that, her husband endorsed Biden and called him “my good friend, my late wife’s great friend.”
But that endorsement didn’t happen easily. Clyburn recalls being summoned from the House floor in late February 2020 to meet with his congressional brain trust: Fudge, Thompson and Richmond.
“They had been bugging me about what I was going to do and when I was going to do it. They really had been giving me a hard time,” he recalled. “They were very anxious about this because everyone is all in on Joe Biden, and things aren’t going well.”
Thompson said the three pushed Clyburn to endorse soon, noting that the pathway to the presidency was through the South and that the only candidate they and many of their constituents would support was Biden. It was a plea that echoed the thinking of Clyburn’s late wife.
The brain trust coordinated a face-to-face meeting between Clyburn and Biden that weekend aboard the hulking World War II-era USS Yorktown docked near Charleston, S.C. They were joined by Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr. (D-N.J.) and Biden campaign adviser Symone Sanders for what Thompson described as the “come-to-Jesus meeting.”
Clyburn told Biden of his decision to endorse, but he also had some advice: His speeches were too long and meandering, his campaign seemed too short on resources, and it seemed unfathomable that Biden was clinging to a lead of just 5 percentage points in the state.
Clyburn also brought up the Supreme Court.
“You have had four women on the Supreme Court, and at no time has anybody ever discussed a Black woman. What’s this about?” Clyburn recounts saying to Biden. “That’s all I’m saying, that it would energize this community to this day if you were to place a Black woman on the Supreme Court.”
Both sides say it wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment impulse for either man. Richmond said announcing a pledge to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court had been batted around for some time, though Clyburn said Biden “never said it to me.”
All parties left the meeting with the impression that Biden’s pledge would make it into the last debate before the primary. But after Biden didn’t mention it during the first half, Clyburn excused himself from the crowd to find the candidate backstage.
“He basically said, from what I gathered, ‘Vice President Biden, if you don’t bring this up, you’re not going to win,’” Thompson recalled.
Biden made the pledge near the end of the debate, squeezing it in when he was asked his favorite motto.
“My mother’s motto was, ‘You know, you’re defined by your courage; you’re redeemed by your loyalty.’ I am loyal. I do what I say,” Biden said moments after noting he had “pushed very hard” to ensure a Black woman would be seated on the court.
The next day, Clyburn announced his endorsement.
Clyburn has been lobbying to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court since the Obama administration, saying it would be a win-win no matter what Republicans decided to do: If they filibustered, it would turn out angry Black voters; if they didn’t, President Barack Obama would be credited with a historic appointment.
And what would be his reaction if his longtime friend chooses someone not named J. Michelle Childs for the Supreme Court?
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he said. “You don’t win them all.”