Court Battles

Biden team asks Senate Democrats to recommend public defenders, civil rights lawyers for federal bench

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President-elect Joe Biden is asking Democratic senators to recommend candidates for judicial nominations and to prioritize potential picks who have served as public defenders and civil rights lawyers — professions that are vastly underrepresented on the federal bench.
Dana Remus, Biden’s pick to serve as White House counsel when he takes office next month, sent a letter to Democratic senators this month soliciting their input on district court seats in their states, saying that the new administration would be emphasizing nominees who are demographically diverse and don’t have the corporate law or prosecutor pedigree that is typical of a federal judge.
“With respect to U.S. District Court positions, we are particularly focused on nominating individuals whose legal experiences have been historically underrepresented on the federal bench, including those who are public defenders, civil rights and legal aid attorneys, and those who represent Americans in every walk of life,” Remus wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Hill.
The letter, dated Dec. 22, was first reported by HuffPost on Thursday. 
The letter comes as advocacy groups have been pushing Biden’s transition team to take a different approach from past administrations when it comes to appointing federal judges. 
Recent presidents of both parties have filled the judiciary with former prosecutors, lawyers who primarily come from prestigious law firms specializing in representing big corporations or some combination of the two.
The Center for American Progress published a study in August that found that 65 percent of circuit court judges, who sit just below the Supreme Court, spent the majority of their legal careers in private practice, usually at major law firms. Only three had spent their careers as public defenders, and just one was a nonprofit lawyer, according to the study. 
A 2014 study from the progressive group Alliance for Justice (AFJ) found that former President Obama had contributed to the trend. According to AFJ, 85 percent of Obama’s nominees up to that point were corporate attorneys, prosecutors or both.
The letter from Remus is a victory for the advocates who have been pushing Biden to approach judicial nominations differently from his Democratic predecessors.
Christopher Kang, a co-founder of the progressive group Demand Justice, applauded the move and pushed Democrats in the Senate to honor it.
“These are exactly the kind of priorities and processes that we have been pushing for and that will be necessary to rebalance our courts after four years of Trump and McConnell,” Kang said in a statement. “President-elect Biden’s emphasis from the outset on professional diversity demonstrates his commitment to build on the historic demographic diversity of President Obama’s judges, and his clear timeline underscores that judges will be a priority from day one of his administration.”

“This letter also sets the right tone with Senators, who have traditionally had an outsize—although often under-scrutinized—role in judicial nominations, and can be the source of delay or recommend too many lawyers from over-represented backgrounds, such as corporate law firms and prosecutors’ offices,” he added. “Now, Senators are on notice that they must follow Biden’s lead and must provide multiple, timely recommendations of lawyers who would restore balance and legitimacy to our courts.”

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