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Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of Equal Justice Initiative, is included on Demand Justice's shortlist of progressives that the organization says should be considered by President-elect Joe Biden for federal court nominations. (Photo: TED Conference/Flickr/cc)

'Very Encouraging': After Trump-McConnell Court Takeover, Biden Applauded for Signaling Plan to Nominate Civil Rights Lawyers

"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."

Julia Conley

Progressives on Wednesday applauded the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden after Dana Remus, who Biden has selected as his White House counsel, called on Democratic senators to recommend potential federal judges who have worked as public defenders and civil rights attorneys—a departure from typical nominees, many of whom have backgrounds in corporate law. 

"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," wrote Remus to Democratic lawmakers.

The request suggests that a campaign by judicial reform advocacy group Demand Justice, in which the organization presented a shortlist of public service attorneys for consideration should Biden nominate a Supreme Court justice, has not fallen on deaf ears.

"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 [President Donald] Trump and [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell," Christopher Kang, co-founder of Demand Justice, said in a statement.

The group's shortlist includes Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson; Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights president Vanita Gupta, who also served as assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department; Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner, who has worked as a public defender; and Christina Swarns, executive director of the Innocence Project and former staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society. 

According to a study published in August by the Center for American Progress, 65% of circuit court judges come from professional backgrounds in private practice, working at corporate law firms like Jones Day and David Polk & Wardwell. Just three were nominated to the bench following careers as public defenders.  

More than 70% of judges sitting on federal appellate courts spent most of their careers in private practice or as federal prosecutors, the study showed. 

In 2014, Alliance for Justice published a study showing that 85% of the federal judges President Barack Obama had nominated up to that point came from corporate backgrounds or had been prosecutors. 

"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," said Kang. 

Brian Fallon, executive director of Demand Justice, said Remus' call was "very encouraging to see."

"This is exactly the kind of urgency and focus we need to begin to rebalance our judicial system," said the group on social media.

There are currently 43 district court vacancies which Biden could potentially fill with the Senate's confirmation, but Demand Justice noted that the outcome of two Senate runoff elections in Georgia, taking place January 5, will determine if the Democrats will control the Senate when Biden takes office.

If Sens. David Perdue or Kelly Loeffler keep their Senate seats, the group said in an emailed statement, "McConnell will remain in charge. That would mean Biden may have to prepare for the kind of unwavering obstruction that Obama faced from McConnell in getting his judicial picks confirmed."

But should Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock win in Georgia, Demand Justice added, "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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