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Senate hears from Biden's high-profile judicial nominees for first time

Senate hears from Biden's high-profile judicial nominees for first time
© TOM WILLIAMS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Two of President BidenJoe BidenEx-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' News leaders deal with the post-Trump era MORE's high-profile judicial nominees made their first appearance before Congress on Wednesday, highlighting the new administration's effort to diversify the federal bench.

District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, whose nomination to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals last month instantly put her into contention for a future Supreme Court vacancy, and Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, a lawyer who was nominated to the 7th Circuit, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

Their confirmations would be historic, making them two of only a handful of Black women and former public defenders on the nation's powerful circuit courts, which sit just below the Supreme Court. 

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They both testified that their experience as criminal defense lawyers for the poor could help bring a valuable perspective to the appeals court bench and stressed that they would interpret the law without any political considerations. 

"If you don't have judges who are able to do their duty ... then we've lost that very important check that the founders wanted us to have," Jackson said. "It's the way our government was constructed. So the independence of the judicial branch is crucial." 

Jackson is currently a federal district judge in D.C., where she presided over a number of high-profile cases involving the Trump administration. Her nomination to the D.C. Circuit, which has been a career stop for many Supreme Court justices, instantly generated buzz about another potential promotion. 

Before her confirmation to the district court in 2013, Jackson served as a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Before that, she worked in the D.C. federal public defender's office and at a private law firm. Three years after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1996, Jackson clerked for Supreme Court Justice Stephen BreyerStephen BreyerSupreme Court confounding its partisan critics Gorsuch, Thomas join liberal justices in siding with criminal defendant Senate confirms Biden's first judicial nominee MORE.

Jackson-Akiwumi joined the D.C. office of the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder last year, following 10 years as an assistant federal public defender in Illinois. 

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The Biden administration has emphasized the need for greater diversity on the federal bench, where former prosecutors and corporate law partners greatly outnumber former public interest lawyers, both in terms of demographics and professional background. 

Jackson-Akiwumi said on Wednesday that she believes adding more federal judges with backgrounds like hers could bolster the judicial system's credibility.

"I do believe that demographic diversity of all types even beyond race plays an important role in increasing public confidence in our courts and increases the public's ability to accept the legitimacy of court decisions," she told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It's very akin to the way in which we guarantee a jury of one's peers and the idea that you walk into a courtroom and 12 people from all kinds of different backgrounds might decide your case."

Democrats and progressive advocates have applauded the nominations as a break from previous administrations' approaches to picking judges.

It's unclear whether Republicans will mount serious opposition to Biden's judicial nominees. GOP senators on the Judiciary Committee posed challenging questions to Jackson and Jackson-Akiwumi on Wednesday, but did not show the same hostility that they employed against two of Biden's recent nominees to high-ranking Justice Department positions. 

But Senate Republicans did take the opportunity Wednesday to lash out against a push on the left to add seats to the Supreme Court as a way of erasing the current conservative majority on the bench. 

When pressed by GOP members, both nominees told the committee that they felt it would be inappropriate to discuss structural proposals for the Supreme Court or any political fights around the institution.

Republicans on Wednesday attacked outside groups like Demand Justice, which has pushed the Biden administration and Senate Democrats to make the judiciary a top priority in the wake of former President TrumpDonald TrumpEx-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report Ex-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' MORE's success at filling the courts with right-wing judges.

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisInfighting grips Nevada Democrats ahead of midterms Lara Trump lost her best opportunity — if she ever really wanted it 9 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2022 MORE (R-N.C.) accused the group of essentially picking Biden's judicial nominees for him in an effort to push their ideological agenda on the justice system.

"That group is largely responsible for the nominees that we have before us today," Tillis said. "Demand Justice is a dark-money liberal group, whose first priority is getting left-wing judges who will follow a liberal agenda instead of the Constitution."

Jackson pushed back, saying that she has nothing to do with the group and that she believes she was nominated for her record.

"My statement is that I've always been an independent judge and I believe that is one of the reasons why the president has honored me with this nomination," she said.

Demand Justice, which was co-founded by a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerIt's not just Manchin: No electoral mandate stalls Democrats' leftist agenda DOJ to probe Trump-era subpoenas of lawmaker records Democrats demand Barr, Sessions testify on Apple data subpoenas MORE (D-N.Y.) and a lawyer who worked in the Obama White House, has called on Democrats to stop elevating judges who draw their legal experience primarily from corporate law firms or prosecutors' offices and instead draw from from public defenders, civil rights advocates, consumer protection attorneys and labor lawyers.

"Republican senators' repeated attacks on Demand Justice show they couldn't seriously criticize the records of these two highly-qualified nominees, so they went after our organization instead," Brian Fallon, the group's executive director, said in a statement issued during the hearing. "If Republicans feel this threatened by our work to restore balance to our court system, we must be doing something right."