Our future depends on the confirmation of highly qualified and diverse judges now
Our nation is still reeling from another Supreme Court term with a number of cruel decisions — issued by justices, many of whose ethics are compromised — that rolled back our fundamental rights. There is reason to worry about what comes next for our democracy. What is certain, however, is that the work we and generations before us have been doing collectively to fight for our rights is important. It’s necessary. And it’s the only way to make sure that we make progress in the long term towards a democracy that works for all of us.
For a more thriving, multiracial democracy in which everyone is treated fairly and there is equal justice under law, our federal judiciary must be staffed with diverse, fair-minded judges who come to the bench with a demonstrated commitment to civil and human rights. This is only possible if we build it now — one judge at a time. And we have seen exceptional progress in this area from the Biden-Harris administration and with the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
To date, the president has made 178 nominations for lifetime positions to our federal courts, and the Senate has confirmed 140 of them. Behind this number are diverse and highly qualified judges who are committed to equal justice — judges who will make a difference in the lives of people who appear in their courtroom and to all of us who are impacted by their decisions.
This includes the historic confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman and first former public defender to ever serve on our U.S. Supreme Court. At the circuit court level, we celebrate confirmations of people like Judge Nancy Abudu, former director of strategic litigation at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who is now the first Black woman to ever serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. In addition, Judge Julie Rikelman, who served as litigation director at the Center for Reproductive Rights, is now the first Jewish woman and first immigrant woman to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and Judge Myrna Pérez, who worked to defend the freedom to vote at the Brennan Center for Justice, is the only Latina judge currently serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Our exceptional new district court judges also deserve recognition for the commitment to equal justice and diversity they are bringing to courtrooms across the country. This includes Judges Dale Ho, Nusrat Choudhury, Natasha Merle, Lauren King, Hernán Vera, Araceli Martínez-Olguín, and Jamal Whitehead, who all bring professional and lived experience deeply lacking from our courts. The list goes on.
Until a few weeks ago, these confirmations outpaced recent administrations, including the Trump administration, which significantly damaged our judiciary by installing anti-civil rights lawyers to serve on our courts. Unfortunately, the Senate has fallen behind, and we know there are challenges ahead — including the lack of days the Senate is scheduled to be in D.C., the upcoming election, and the refusal of some senators to work in earnest with the Biden-Harris administration to find outstanding nominees.
But we will not settle for only the progress we have made. Our future depends on the confirmation of highly qualified and diverse judges now. We need these fair-minded individuals in courtrooms across our nation to advance equal justice and strengthen our democracy. Time is of the essence, and this is especially true in southern states where we have not seen as much progress in our courts but where Black and brown communities continue to fight for recognition of their civil and human rights. Otherwise, we could see more anti-civil rights nominees fill these seats instead and accelerate the decades-long effort to dismantle our hard-won rights. There are currently 60 known vacancies without a named nominee, and this number will only increase. We need and expect to see President Biden nominate individuals with demonstrated commitments to civil rights for each of these vacancies.
There are three things that together we must insist on:
- Schumer must swiftly move the 17 nominees awaiting full Senate action. And he must act quickly on every single nominee who is advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. There are incredible nominees awaiting confirmation, including Judge Ana de Alba, Judge Todd Edelman, Mónica Ramírez Almadani, Judge Jeffrey Cummings, Susan DeClercq, Judge Marion Gaston, and Judge Rita Lin.
- The White House must immediately fill all known vacancies with nominees who possess the experience — professional and lived — that is known to enrich judicial decision-making and build public trust in our judiciary. This also requires senators, who play a critical role in the recommendation and selection of district court and often circuit court nominees, to act with good faith, intentionality, and speed.
- Congress must hold our highest court to basic ethical standards as well as improve recusal and transparency methods. The escalating crises at the Supreme Court cannot go unchecked, and investigating misconduct and passing legislation that would create a binding code of conduct and stronger anti-corruption measures is long overdue.
Together we have changed the default of who is considered fair and qualified for the federal bench because we know that a judiciary staffed with brilliant people committed to equal justice — people whose experiences have been historically excluded — yields better decisions and is more reflective and representative of America. And we hold on to the joy and celebrate this remarkable progress. But we cannot relent. The White House must hasten its pace in nominating individuals who will strengthen our democracy, and Schumer and Durbin must accelerate this progress.
Lena Zwarensteyn is senior director of the fair courts program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.