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'Stunning Diversity': How Joe Biden Reshaped The Courts In 2023

The president’s pace of judicial confirmations slowed, but he put historic numbers of women, people of color and public defenders on the federal bench.

Dec 28, 2023, 05:45 AM EST

Joe Biden did something this year that no other president has done.

He put a citizen of the Navajo Nation into a lifetime federal judgeship.

He also put a Bangladeshi American and Muslim woman into a lifetime federal judgeship.

And he put 30 people into lifetime federal judgeships who have strong backgrounds in protecting people’s civil rights, including public defenders and civil rights attorneys.

This is just a sampling of the historic diversity that Biden has been ushering onto the nation’s federal courts. But the looming question for 2024 is, can he keep it going?

After a breakneck pace of confirming judges during his first two years in office, Biden, for the first time, fell behind Donald Trump’s number of confirmations by this point in his presidency, despite Democrats controlling the Senate. And he may be missing out on opportunities to fill slots on crucial appeals courts before the November election.

Jake Faleschini, the director of justice programs at Alliance for Justice, a progressive judicial advocacy group, said that Biden still has nearly 100 court vacancies to fill heading into 2024. It’s possible to fill them all, he said, but Democrats have to make sure at every opportunity that Senate Judiciary Committee hearings are “fully packed” with Biden’s judicial nominees, and that they continue voting to confirm them for the full year.

“If they do that, they’ll finish up stronger than the Trump administration,” he said. “Trump got 234 judges. If Democrats keep going, and at the pace of the last three years, they can outpace that.”

Biden has been laser focused on diversifying the courts since he took office, both in terms of demographics like race and gender but also in terms of professional backgrounds. For as long as the U.S. has had a court system, it has been almost exclusively filled out with white men and corporate lawyers or ex-prosecutors. Biden, a former longtime chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has broken from that mold and advocated the idea that federal judges should reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.

Three years into his presidency, Biden, with the help of Senate Democrats, just delivered on some of his most trailblazing judges yet.

Consider this batch of six judges that Biden got confirmed around the start of the summer. All six were civil rights attorneys. All six were priorities for progressive judicial advocacy groups. All six are relatively young, meaning that they likely have decades ahead of them in their lifetime appointments.

These include now-U.S. District Judge Dale Ho, 46, who was a prominent voting rights attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. They also include now-U.S. Appeals Judge Julie Rikelman, 51, considered one of the best abortion rights attorneys in the country. Rikelman had been the litigation director for the Center for Reproductive Rights since 2011, and famously argued on behalf of an abortion clinic at the center of the 2022 Supreme Court case that led to Roe v. Wade being overturned.

“Biden’s greatest 2023 accomplishments were continuing to nominate and confirm unprecedented numbers of candidates who are diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ideology and experience,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor and an expert in judicial nominations.

Those six confirmations came weeks after the Senate confirmed Nancy Abudu, 49 — another civil rights attorney and the first Black woman to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

“The quality of the nominees in 2023 really stands out,” said Faleschini. “We got so many of these folks through who had been waiting for the first two years of the administration. They finally got through last summer. Just very, very high-quality nominees.”

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