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With These Women of Color, We’re Making Our Courts Look Like America

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In a December 2020 letter to the president-elect, People For called for him to nominate fair-minded individuals who have a demonstrated commitment to civil and human rights. This is critical, because protecting those rights is the primary reason our courts exist. We also pointed out that his nominees should reflect demographic, professional, and experiential diversity. After all, to achieve justice and fairness and to be seen as legitimate, judges must understand the lived experiences of those whose cases come before them.

President Biden has done just that. In his first year, he has taken enormous strides toward populating our courts with jurists who look like America, and who have professional backgrounds severely lacking on the federal bench.  More than 40 percent of Biden’s nominees have been women of color, and they are a dynamic and phenomenally talented group with a diverse range of professional backgrounds.

Take Myrna Pérez, for instance, who Biden nominated to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. As the director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Election Program, she had dedicated her career to advancing the core right at the basis of all others: the right to vote. Over the years, when targeted communities came under attack by some new voter suppression scheme, they turned to Pérez for help. She made their fight her own. As Indiana NAACP president Barbara Bolling-Williams said when Pérez went to her state to challenge its discriminatory voter purge scheme in the courts, “Myrna was a lifesaver.” At her committee hearing, Republicans made all kinds of bizarre and unfounded attacks against her, but she withstood everything they could throw at her. Confirmed in October, Judge Pérez now brings to the bench a deep understanding of how the law impacts people’s lives and a commitment to recognizing the rights of all people.

Seventh Circuit nominee Candace Jackson-Akiwumi left one of the nation’s most prestigious law firms at the age of 30 to become a public defender. She represented indigent men and women in Illinois who were accused of crimes but who could not afford a lawyer. She stood with them to make sure their rights were not violated by prosecutors or law enforcement. She helped expose the government’s use of “phony stash houses” to encourage people into committing crimes they would not have otherwise committed. Jackson-Akiwumi went to court and showed the devastating racial disparity in how the federal government was using this tactic in Illinois, and the judge who heard the case said the practice should be “relegated to the dark corridors of our past.” Now that she has been confirmed, Judge Jackson-Akiwumi is sharing her knowledge about how the criminal justice works in real life with a group of colleagues that does not include anyone else with a public defender background. Also, since she is a Black woman, the Seventh Circuit was re-integrated, following its reversion to having an all-white bench with former President Trump filling all five vacancies on this court during his term with white judges.

Newly confirmed Judge Jennifer Sung has become the first AAPI person from Oregon to serve on the Ninth Circuit, and she is bringing a vital perspective to judges’ deliberations that is missing from most courts. Before law school, she had spent several years with local union affiliates organizing working people so they could more effectively bargain with their employers. As a lawyer, she represented them in court, defending their rights when they were victimized by those more powerful than them. She was so impressive that when Oregon’s governor nominated her to the state’s Employment Relations Board in 2017—a position similar to that of a judge—the state senate confirmed her unanimously. And when President Biden nominated her to the Ninth Circuit, support came not only from organized labor but also from people in Oregon who had spent their careers representing management in labor disputes, but who recognized in Jennifer Sung someone who considered their cases with integrity, objectivity, and skill. Senate Republicans closed their eyes and pretended this away, making up an alternate reality to justify their decision to oppose her. But Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and the entire Democratic caucus persevered against their obstruction, and she was confirmed in December.

Soon to join Judge Sung on the Ninth Circuit, Holly Thomas will be getting a vote when the Senate returns in January. Even before going to law school, Thomas helped the San Francisco Bar Association in its efforts to provide free legal services to low-income San Francisco families and individuals. After law school, she fought for civil rights with the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund (LDF), with a special focus on the struggle for racial equity in education and the criminal justice system. Then she joined the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department. Eventually she moved back to California to help run its Department of Fair Employment and Housing. She became a state judge in 2018 and takes care to run her courtroom in a way that recognizes the many ways that systemic inequality can affect every aspect of a litigant’s time in court.

Lucy Koh, who was recently confirmed to the Ninth Circuit, has written about how her life experience made her “intensely conscious” of racial inequality from the time she was a child. She has spent her career breaking barriers. For instance, in 2010, she became the first Asian-American federal judge in the San Francisco Bay Area and the nation’s first Korean-American woman federal judge. Her decisions have recognized the role of judges in protecting the rule of law and our nation’s democracy. For instance, she rejected the Trump administration’s scheme to exclude non-citizens from apportionment data after the 2020 Census, and she ordered them to end their plans to unlawfully end counting for the census prematurely. When the Senate confirmed her in early December, Judge Koh became the first Korean American woman ever to serve on a U.S. circuit court.

Another inspiring Biden judge is Eunice Lee, who (like Myrna Pérez) was nominated to the Second Circuit. Lee spent more than 20 years as a public defender in New York. This work gave her insight into the realities and the flaws of the criminal justice system. Confirmed in August, Judge Lee is now bringing that insight into circuit court panels, making it possible for judges to make more informed decisions. No one else on that court had a previous career as a public defender. Judge Lee is also enhancing the personal diversity of that court: Only one other Black woman has ever been a judge on the Second Circuit, and that judge stepped down from active service nearly 20 years ago.

Another prominent Black woman confirmed as a circuit court judge is Ketanji Brown Jackson. She had already been a federal district court judge for several years when President Biden selected her for the powerful D.C. Circuit in one of his very first nominations. She had shown her strong commitment to the principle that courts exist to protect the rights of all, not just the powerful or the popular. For instance, she firmly rejected former White House Counsel Don McGahn’s claim that he could refuse to testify to a congressional committee investigating Russia's interference into the 2016 presidential election because then-President Trump had ordered him not to. She wrote that “the primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that Presidents are not kings.” Before becoming a judge, she had been on the United States Sentencing Commission, where she championed ending the unjust discrepancy between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine, a discrepancy that had a devastating impact on Black communities.

All these women, facing overwhelming opposition from Republicans, got confirmed because individual senators identified and recommended them, the White House supported them, Senators Schumer and Durbin fought for them every step of the way, and the entire Democratic caucus supported them.

And they got confirmed because activists around the country, including People For’s national network of members and supporters, contacted their senators and urged the confirmation of these extraordinary women of color. When people dedicate their lives to standing up for others, it’s up to us to stand up for them when they come under attack.

When it comes to the courts, the first year of Biden’s presidency has been a great success. These phenomenal judges exemplify the quality of jurists we need to advance the long-term project of restoring our courts so that our rights and our democracy are protected.