Jackson’s comments came during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to review the Biden administration’s first slate of judicial picks. Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) called it a “historic day,” with two Black women, both former public defenders, up for appeals court openings in Washington and Chicago.
Durbin noted that all five of Biden’s picks before the Senate on Wednesday were people of color, underscoring the administration’s effort to reshape the federal judiciary with diverse nominees from a wide range of professional backgrounds.
“We need it on the federal bench,” Durbin said in opening remarks. “It is a sad reality that four years of President Trump and a Republican Senate did not expand diversity on our federal courts.”
Durbin noted that not one of Trump’s 54 nominees to federal appeals courts nationwide was African American. If confirmed, Biden’s choice for the Chicago-based appeals court, attorney Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, would be the only non-White judge sitting on that bench.
During the three-hour hearing, the two appeals court nominees fielded questions about expanding the size of the Supreme Court, the role of race in the work of a judge and religious liberty.
Republicans used the Senate hearing to criticize a liberal interest group backing the administration’s nominees and to test Jackson’s record. Jackson is frequently mentioned as someone Biden could eventually tap to make good on his pledge to name the first Black woman to the Supreme Court. After graduating from Harvard and Harvard Law School, she was a law clerk to Justice Stephen G. Breyer, the high court’s oldest justice, who is under pressure from Democrats to retire.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) tried to connect one of Jackson’s rulings against the Trump administration with the addition of her name to a shortlist of Supreme Court nominees compiled by the advocacy group Demand Justice. Tillis played a video clip of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow reporting on Jackson’s 2019 decision requiring former Trump counsel Donald McGahn to respond to a subpoena from House Democrats. In the recording, Maddow described the ruling as written with a “broader audience in mind.”
In response, Jackson told the committee, “I know very well what my obligations are, what my duties are, not to rule with partisan advantage in mind, not to tailor or craft my decisions in order to try to gain influence or do anything of the sort.”
Jackson’s ruling in the McGahn case was twice reversed by an appeals court panel and is still pending before the full D.C. Circuit, which initially agreed with Jackson that the House has legal grounds to sue to enforce its subpoena.
“I have no control over what outside groups say about my rulings,” she added. “I have no control over what reporters say about my rulings.”
In eight years on the U.S. District Court in Washington, Jackson said, her more than 550 rulings were intentionally written for the public, the appeals court and the parties in the case.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) rejected the idea that outside groups had influenced Biden’s judicial picks. The senator contrasted Biden’s approach to the Trump administration’s reliance on a list of nominees recommended by the conservative Federalist Society.
In a statement after the hearing, Demand Justice’s chief counsel, Christopher Kang, said Jackson was included on its list not because of any particular ruling but because of her work as a public defender, on the U.S. Sentencing Commission and on the bench.
“Jackson’s record is so sterling that Republicans have resorted to inventing conspiracy theories,” Kang said in an email.
Before the hearing, the group put up posters around the Capitol grounds with Jackson’s picture and the message: “Confirm Judge Jackson.”
In response to a question from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) about religious liberty, Jackson seemed to distance herself from the now-shuttered Montrose Christian School, a basketball powerhouse in Rockville, Md., where she briefly served on the board a decade ago.
Hawley asked Jackson about elements of its statement of faith that he quoted as saying, “we should speak on behalf of the unborn” and “marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman.” Hawley, who noted he agrees with those positions, asked whether Jackson’s work on the school’s advisory board means she believes in the constitutional right of religious liberty.
“I do believe in religious liberty,” she said, adding that “any personal views about religion would never come into my service as a judge.”
Jackson has served on many boards, she said, and does not necessarily agree with “all of the statements that those boards might have in their materials.” She was not aware of the statement Hawley read and unsure, she said, whether it was in the school’s materials during her one-year tenure.
Jackson and Jackson-Akiwumi each declined to answer several questions about proposals by liberal groups to expand the size of the Supreme Court that followed the confirmation of President Donald Trump’s nominee, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, shortly before last year’s election.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to comment on the structure or the size of the court any more than it would for me to comment on the court’s rulings,” Jackson said.
With the Biden administration emphasizing the need to increase diversity on the federal bench, lawmakers in both parties asked the nominees whether race would play a role in their approach to serving as a judge.
Jackson-Akiwumi, 41, spent a decade at the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Chicago, where she represented 400 indigent clients accused of a wide range of crimes. She is the daughter of two judges, one on the federal bench in Virginia and the other in Virginia state court.
“Demographic diversity of all types, even beyond race, plays an important role in increasing public confidence in our courts and increases the public’s ability to accept the legitimacy of court decisions,” Jackson-Akiwumi said.
Before becoming a judge, Jackson served on the commission that shapes federal sentencing policies. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who has led efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system and lengthy mandatory sentences, praised Jackson’s work on the panel.
In addition to the circuit court nominees, the committee reviewed Biden’s picks for three District Court slots. In New Jersey, they are Zahid N. Quraishi, a magistrate judge and former federal prosecutor, and Julien Neals, county counsel and acting Bergen County administrator.
Regina Rodriguez, a former federal prosecutor, is nominated for the District Court in Colorado. Neals and Rodriguez were previously tapped by President Barack Obama, but their nominations stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate. All five nominees received ratings of “well qualified” from the American Bar Association.