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Biden had a productive year picking federal judges. The job could get tougher in 2022

From left: Julien Xavier Neals, nominee to be U.S. district judge for the District of New Jersey; Zahid Quraishi, nominee to be judge for the District of New Jersey; and Regina Rodriguez, nominee to be judge for the District of Colorado, are sworn in during an April 28 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Quraishi has become the first Muslim American federal judge.
Tom Williams
/
AP
From left: Julien Xavier Neals, nominee to be U.S. district judge for the District of New Jersey; Zahid Quraishi, nominee to be judge for the District of New Jersey; and Regina Rodriguez, nominee to be judge for the District of Colorado, are sworn in during an April 28 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Quraishi has become the first Muslim American federal judge.

President Biden has gotten a group of 40 federal judges confirmed in the Senate this year, the most for a new president since the Reagan era — and he's prioritizing diversity among his nominees for these life-tenured posts.

Biden's nominees include the first openly LGBTQ woman to sit on a federal appeals court, Beth Robinson of Vermont, and the first Muslim American to be a judge, Zahid Quraishi of New Jersey. Biden has also named more Black women to circuit courts, many of them former public defenders, than any other president.

"Really, President Biden is going above and beyond and setting new, historic trends for what our judiciary can and should look like," said Christopher Kang, chief counsel at the group Demand Justice, which advocates for court reform and progressive-leaning judges.

The effort to identify judge candidates started a year ago, even before Biden took the oath of office. Then-incoming White House counsel Dana Remus wrote to Democratic senators and urged them to cast a wide net and look beyond the prosecutors and corporate lawyers who populate most of the federal bench.

In a rare interview, Remus told NPR that the outreach is starting to get to a wider audience.

"I'm hopeful it's inspiring law students and younger lawyers as well to think ahead," Remus said.

Former President Donald Trump's 226 judges were overwhelmingly white and male. A new analysis concluded that nearly 75% of Biden's picks have been women, and nearly 65% have been people of color, according to Alliance for Justice, a liberal coalition that works on court and judicial issues.

"The majority of people who come to the doorsteps of criminal courts every day are from communities of color and also communities who don't have access to resources," said April Frazier Camara of the National Legal Aid and Defender Center, which supports legal aid lawyers and public defenders.

Frazier Camara said having judges who have worked with those kinds of clients will make a difference.

"We know that professionals who have experience actually working within the legal systems and working directly with clients and communities are better equipped to understand the impact of the laws in which they enforce from the bench," she said.

The job could get tougher in the coming year

Frazier Camara says she's pleased with the White House so far but says there's still a long way to go to make the federal bench look more like the rest of the country.

For Biden, the job could get tougher in the coming year. Most of his judge nominees so far have come from states with two Democratic senators, who won't block his choices for the courts.

"Obviously the Biden administration has first focused on the low-hanging fruit ... and in order to get the other nominees through it would require a compromise process and it just remains to be seen whether that's something can be achieved," said Carrie Severino, who runs the conservative leaning Judicial Crisis Network.

The White House's Remus said the president will try to leverage his long relationships in the Senate.

"And we will continue working in good faith with all senators to fill our vacancies," Remus added.

But it's not clear whether Republicans will see things the same way, especially in a Senate that's evenly divided.

There's yet another unknown for the year ahead: whether Biden could have an opening to fill on the Supreme Court.

Severino, of the Judicial Crisis Network, said conservatives are on alert.

"You never know when a judicial vacancy is going to arise and so we always are prepared for the next big fight," Severino said.

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