Mar 3, 2021 - Politics & Policy

White House primes "pipeline" of federal judges

Illustration of different, brightly covered gavels in unique positions

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The White House is quietly working with Senate Democrats to ensure President Biden has a steady stream of nominees for the federal courts, according to people familiar with the matter and an administration official.

Why it matters: Biden wants the federal judiciary to better reflect the country’s demographics, and to try to shield his unfolding legislative agenda from a judiciary currently dominated by Trump appointees.

  • With Democrats in control of the White House and Senate, liberal-minded federal judges are already announcing their retirement.
  • The administration's first nominee announcements are expected this month but could slide to April.

The intrigue: Allies outside the White House say D.C. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is Black and 50, is likely to be nominated for a spot on the prestigious D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

  • That could prepare her for the Supreme Court, should 82-year-old Justice Stephen Breyer retire.

Driving the news: The White House counts 10 appellate court openings, including two on the D.C. appellate court, and about 60 vacancies in federal District Courts.

  • It's placing a premium not just on ethnic diversity but candidates' background and experience, looking to draw judges from outside the usual pool of corporate appellate attorneys.
  • Age will matter, but not as much as it did to Trump.
  • "We are making sure that there's a pipeline ready,” an administration official said. “We want a steady supply."
  • Biden may not be able to match the former president's imprint on the courts — he got 234 federal judges confirmed, including three Supreme Court justices — but has signaled to Democrats he plans to move quickly to fill the vacancies he can.

Between the lines: In December, incoming White House Counsel Dana Remus asked Democratic senators to send the White House names of potential U.S. District Court judges within 45 days of any vacancy announcement.

  • The White House will take the lead for the more powerful Circuit Court judgeships, one rung below the Supreme Court.
  • It's also considering announcing a slate of nominees, as President George W. Bush did during a Rose Garden ceremony in May 2001.
  • The strategy would be to blitz the public — and the Senate — with a display of diversity while also showing strength in numbers.

What they're saying: "If you have a slate of judges, it gives you an opportunity to have diverse public defenders, civil rights lawyers and labor lawyers to really show the breadth of the legal profession and what Biden is trying to accomplish in a way that you can't with just one or two judges," said Christopher Kang, co-founder and chief counsel of Demand Justice.

  • The Biden administration isn't ready to publicly unveil its strategy.
  • "It's less about whether the first nomination is singular or plural," said the administration official. "The lesson learned was you need to have a steady drumbeat of nominees."
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