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Biden’s AAPI Judges: Diversifying the Bench and Protecting Our Rights

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News & Analysis

This AAPI Heritage Month presents an opportune time to reflect upon the growing number of AAPI lawyers who are protecting people’s rights as federal judges.

Until little more than half a century ago, no AAPI person had ever been selected to serve as a federal judge in the United States.  It was not until 1971 that America broke that shameful barrier, with the confirmation of Herbert Choy for the Ninth Circuit.

Biden’s AAPI Judges By the Numbers

Much has changed since 1971. Now, 90 AAPI individuals have served as lifetime federal judges. Remarkably, nearly 40 percent of them were nominated by President Biden.

So far, Biden has had 35 confirmed AAPI judges, which is more than any previous president.  In less than four years, he has already vastly exceeded the previous record of 22 AAPI judges set by President Barack Obama (and that was over eight years). In percentage terms, 18 percent of Biden’s confirmed judges have been AAPI, as opposed to seven percent for Obama and six percent for Donald Trump.

Trailblazers for Justice

Many of these individuals had careers protecting civil rights, voting rights, and workers’ rights before becoming judges. Many of them are also trailblazers who have been “firsts” on their courts. They all reflect President Biden’s commitment to filling our courts with a diverse set of highly qualified individuals who are dedicated to protecting the rights of all people, not just the wealthy and powerful. For instance:

  • Cindy Chung became the first AAPI judge ever on the Third Circuit. Her experience included prosecuting federal civil rights violations for the Justice Department.
  • Roopali Desai became the first South Asian judge on the Ninth Circuit. She had previously litigated against efforts to undermine and nullify Arizona’s 2020 presidential election results.
  • John Lee became the first AAPI judge ever on the Seventh Circuit. Before he was a judge, he had served as a board member and leader of a legal hotline serving more than 50,000 low-income clients in the Chicago area every year.
  • Jennifer Sung was the first AAPI person from Oregon to serve on the Ninth Circuit. She had spent much of her career representing labor organizations and working people.
  • Dale Ho was a longtime advocate for voting rights with the ACLU when President Biden nominated him for the Southern District of New York.
  • Tana Lin was the first AAPI federal judge in the Western District of Washington. Before becoming a judge, she had dedicated most of her career to protecting the rights of consumers and working people.
  • Nusrat Choudhury was the first Muslim American woman confirmed as a federal judge. Before her confirmation for the Eastern District of New York, she was deputy director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program.
  • Susan DeClercq ran the Civil Rights unit of the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Michigan before becoming that district’s first East Asian American federal judge.

Protecting Our Rights

Upon taking office, Biden’s AAPI judges are making a difference in people’s lives. They are issuing rulings protecting our rights, our health, and our freedom. For instance:

  • D.C. Circuit Judge Florence Pan wrote an opinion that upheld the conviction of a January 6 rioter for “corruptly” obstructing Congress’s certification of the 2020 election results.
  • Ninth Circuit Judge Jennifer Sung wrote a panel decision upholding a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling against a business guilty of anti-union activity.
  • Ninth Circuit Judges Lucy Koh and Roopali Desai wrote a 2-1 opinion protecting the Fourth Amendment rights of a driver after police had improperly extended a routine traffic stop and then searched his car without a warrant.
  • Seventh Circuit Judge John Lee cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 decision reversing a lower court and letting an employee sue for discrimination under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
  • Third Circuit Judge Cindy Chung wrote a decision upholding an NLRB ruling against two corporations for firing an employee because of complaints of racism and working conditions.

More to Do: AAPI Nominees Awaiting Confirmation

There are several pending AAPI nominees who will make excellent judges once the Senate votes to confirm them. They include:

  • Adeel Mangi (nominated for the Third Circuit). He is a Pakistani American lawyer in New Jersey who will become the nation’s first Muslim American appeals court judge. Mangi has a robust pro bono practice that has protected people’s civil rights, including victims of law enforcement violence and Muslims denied a permit to build a mosque. Mangi has been approved by the Judiciary Committee and is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.
  • Amir Ali (nominated for the District of Washington DC). He leads the MacArthur Justice Center, a public interest law firm that represents people who have been harmed by the criminal legal system. He is also a Muslim American. Ali has been approved by the Judiciary and is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.
  • Mustafa Kasubhai (nominated for the District of Oregon). He is a longtime and respected jurist, first as a state judge in Oregon and then as a federal magistrate judge. He is an Indian American and Muslim American lawyer who has long worked to foster conversations among members of Oregon’s legal community to bridge the gaps between people with different backgrounds and experiences. Kasubhai has been approved by the Judiciary Committee and is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.
  • Dena Coggins (nominated for the Eastern District of California): She is a Black AAPI woman currently serving as a state court judge. Her fellow judges in Sacramento have praised her integrity, her expertise, and her fairness in the courtroom. Coggins has been approved by the Judiciary Committee and is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.
  • Anne Hwang (nominated for the Central District of California): She is a current state court judge who previously spent more than a decade working as a public defender. Hwang is awaiting her confirmation hearing before the Judiciary Committee.
  • Meredith Vacca (nominated for the Western District of New York): She will be the first person of color ever to be a federal judge in that district. She currently serves as a state judge. Her previous experience includes prosecuting domestic violence and child abuse. Vacca is awaiting her confirmation hearing before the Judiciary Committee.

The Biden White House, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin have done an excellent job diversifying our courts with sterling AAPI judges. With more nominees in the pipeline, as well as judicial vacancies that do not yet have nominees, that work must continue.