Update, January 26: President Joe Biden is poised to follow through on his campaign promise to appoint the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, as reports emerged Wednesday that Justice Stephen Breyer was set to retire. Here’s what we know about what’s next.
President Joe Biden could potentially double the number of Black women ever confirmed to federal appellate courts, a key stepping stone to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As of Wednesday, with the selection of Arianna J. Freeman for the 3rd Circuit, the president has nominated eight Black women to the 13 U.S. Courts of Appeals. Five have been confirmed, most recently on Thursday, when Judge Holly A. Thomas cleared Senate approval to join the 9th Circuit.
If the remaining three are confirmed, Biden would have doubled the total number of Black women to ever serve on federal appeals courts from eight to 16.
“I think this latest slate of nominees really demonstrates President Biden’s commitment to ensuring that the courts look and represent our country as a whole,” said Christopher Kang, a co-founder of Demand Justice, a progressive group that advocates for diverse judicial appointments.
The federal appellate courts represent the highest judicial level under the Supreme Court and are the primary selection ground for future Supreme Court justices. Biden’s nominations reflect his intention to diversify the federal bench. By increasing the number of Black women judges in the courts where most justices come from, it also expands the pool of likely candidates for Biden to make good on his campaign promise to appoint the first Black woman to the Supreme Court. Biden has already put more Black women to the U.S. Courts of Appeals than any other president.
As with many areas of the legal world, Black women have long faced barriers to securing these positions, said Taneisha N. Means, a professor of political science at Vassar College who researches representation on the federal judiciary.
Black women not only face challenges breaking into coveted legal positions at every level of the industry, but those who do ultimately reach the level of being nominated to federal judge positions are also more likely to experience skepticism from senators about their political bias and past work experience, according to Means’s research.
“The common and widespread belief about Black women is that they are sort of radical,” Means said. “In the case of Black women in politics, the thought is that they will make decisions in political spaces and political institutions that are based on group interest.”
With such obstacles for Black women and people of color overall, the federal judiciary remains about 80 percent White. In recent years more groups like Demand Justice have pushed for wider diversity among federal judges, including the nomination of a Black woman to the Supreme Court.
Biden’s most recent nominations this week continue a trend throughout his first year in office of selecting potential judges with diverse racial, gender and work backgrounds. Of the 42 Biden picks confirmed so far, 78 percent percent are women and about 57 percent are people of color.
Beyond racial and gender diversity, Biden has made another notable mark by nominating the most people with public defender backgrounds to appellate courts than any other president. Of all of Biden’s judicial nominations, Freeman and 22 others are former public defenders; 15 have been confirmed so far, according to Demand Justice’s tracking.
“In the same way that our courts have been dominated by White men, they’ve been dominated by prosecutors and corporate lawyers who have spent their careers representing the government or the rich and the powerful,” Kang said. “In this way, it’s incredibly important to have lawyers who have experience sitting at the table with real life people and understanding their needs and defending their rights.”
Biden’s growing effort to reshape the representation on federal courts comes on the heels of former President Donald Trump’s notable judicial legacy in his one term that consisted of 226 confirmed judges, of whom 84 percent were White and 24 percent were women, according to a calculation by the Pew Research Center. For President Barack Obama, 64 percent of the 320 federal judges confirmed during his two terms were White and 42 percent were women.
In addition to Freeman, Biden’s list of nominees announced this week includes Nusrat Jahan Choudhury, who would be the first Muslim American woman to serve as a federal judge and Ana Isabel de Alba, who would be the first Latina ever to serve on the Eastern District of California.