Biden Declares 2021 the Year of the Black Lady Lawyer

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Biden Declares 2021 the Year of the Black Lady Lawyer

Imani Gandy

Could court reform be next?

*bursts through the door, gesticulating wildly*

Oh my god, y’all. Joe Biden has released his first slate of judicial nominees, and boy howdy—it is a doozy. There are people of color. Multiple people of color. Hell, all of his circuit court nominees are Black women. All three of them! And two of those Black women are public defenders!

I’m a little verklempt, so pardon my enthusiasm—although, frankly, you should be as verklempt as I am. Why aren’t you? Maybe you are. I can’t actually see you.

But it’s exciting to think about our federal judiciary beginning to represent what this country actually looks like. For the past four years we’ve seen a murder of white dudes become federal court judges. Trump appointed something like 200 judges, and at least 250 of those 200 were white. (He appointed a lot of white judges, is what I’m saying.)

Biden’s picks are such a nice antidote to the unbearable whiteness of Donald Trump’s judicial nominees that it’s enough to make me want to rip off my bra and go running into the night. Just kidding, who wears a bra in a pandemic? The very idea baffles me.

But let’s talk about these judges! Back in December, Biden said he wanted a diverse slate of judges, and not just in terms of ethnic background—in terms of diversity of experience.

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“Diversity of experience?” you might be asking. “I thought diversity was just hiring one Black guy and then asking him really embarrassing questions about hip-hop—questions he doesn’t know the answers to because he’s more of an alt-country fan.”

And to that I say: You’re not entirely wrong.

But I’m talking about diversity of experience. That means nominating nonwhite judges who have done other things besides hop on the express train from an Ivy League school to a federal judgeship. Sure, most people take the local train—with stops for clerking at the Supreme Court and then another stop either at the U.S. Attorney’s Office or Big Law, where they’ll spend two years doing document review in the basement before being permitted the great honor of actually drafting an email for someone else to send to a client—but by and large, these are not folks who are interacting with regular people. They are elites working at elite firms or in elite government positions, not mingling with the hoi polloi.

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Trump loaded the courts with prosecutors who have spent their careers trying to incarcerate people. There’s no way bias doesn’t seep into decision-making about, for example, an unconstitutional search in violation of a criminal defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. A public defender may have a different point of view regarding the power that police misuse when executing Fourth Amendment searches.

It’s this diversity of experience that the federal courts lack.

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So it’s a big deal that two of the three Black women Biden nominated to circuit courts were public defenders. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has been nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to replace Merrick Garland. Tiffany Cunningham, if confirmed, will be the first Black woman to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. And Biden nominated Candace Jackson-Akiwumi to the Seventh Circuit, which is 100 percent white right now. Not cool, man.

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Supreme Court nerds are already atwitter over the news that Jackson will be replacing Garland on the D.C. Circuit, which is frequently viewed as a stepping stone to SCOTUS.

And remember what Biden said about Justice Stephen Breyer’s eventual replacement? She’s going to be a Black woman, which Jackson happens to be. (She also clerked for Breyer.)

What a world.

Now let’s talk about U.S. District Courts!

Biden is nominating Judge Zahid Quraishi for a seat on the New Jersey district court, which would make him the first Muslim American on the federal bench. He’s also nominating Judge Lydia Griggsby for the Maryland district court. Not only is she a Black woman, but she would be the first BIPOC woman to sit on that court. And to round out the list of firsts, Judge Florence Pan will be the first Asian American or Pacific Islander woman on the D.C. federal district court.

“But what’s the big deal?” you may be thinking. It’s just 11 judges. Trump appointed 200.”

Again, you’re not wrong. Trump packed the courts with so many unqualified numpties on the bench that it’s going to take massive court reform in order to unpack them.

Still, 11 nominees in the first 100 days is nothing to sneeze at. It signals that Biden understands what’s at stake.

Could court reform be next?

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Anything is possible, so hang onto your butts.