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Biden’s Promise to Diversify the Courts

People who care about equal justice under the law should be very happy about President Joe Biden’s first set of judicial nominees.

I am especially excited about the three outstanding Black women that President Biden nominated to the circuit courts—the appeals court level just below the U.S. Supreme Court.

You will soon be hearing more about all these highly credentialed and accomplished women: Ketanji Brown Jackson, Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, and Tiffany Cunningham.

Biden is fulfilling his promise to bring professional diversity to courts that are dominated by former prosecutors and corporate lawyers. Ketanji Brown Jackson and Candace Jackson-Akiwumi both have experience as public defenders. Jackson is now a federal district judge who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 2013.

Biden has pledged to nominate the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court. These nominees are a good sign that he intends to keep that promise, too.

It is shameful that the Seventh Circuit, which has jurisdiction over diverse cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis, currently has only white judges. The confirmation of Jackson-Akiwumi will change that. The confirmation of Tiffany Cunningham will make her the first Black judge ever to serve on the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.

These brilliant women will also bring other perspectives that are sorely lacking on the courts.

Judge Jackson was vice chair and commissioner on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, where she advocated for ending the brutally unjust and anti-Black discrepancy between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine.

As a public defender, Candace Jackson-Akiwumi represented more than 400 people who could not afford a lawyer.

Tiffany Cunningham has been nominated to the specialized federal circuit, which needs judges familiar with science and technology issues. Cunningham not only has a law degree from Harvard, but a degree in chemical engineering from MIT. She has been repeatedly named to legal publications’ lists of the country’s best lawyers. She is impressive.

This is history in the making, not just for these judges but for all the people who will be influenced by their decisions.

Legendary civil rights advocate Mary Frances Berry recently wrote, “When the American people voted in November, we chose a new Congress and administration that we believed would deliver change. That means passing legislation that actually helps everyday people, not just the rich and powerful. It also means having the right people in key positions to bring that ‘real people’ focus to policymaking and to upholding the law.” As Berry pointed out, the success of these trailblazing women will also create new opportunities for the women and girls who follow them.

Former President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees were overwhelmingly white—around four percent of his judges are Black —and mostly picked for their loyalty to a right-wing judicial ideology that sacrifices individual rights and the common good to states’ rights and the power of corporations. Trump appointed no Black women to the circuit courts.

Confirming Biden’s judicial nominees will begin the process of repairing the damage done to our courts during the Trump administration and restoring faith in our courts.

Unfortunately, we have seen that being extremely well qualified does not prevent women of color from being unfairly attacked. Right-wing groups have spent millions of dollars to smear women of color nominated to Biden’s cabinet and to high-level positions at the U.S. Justice Department.

People For the American Way has launched the Her Fight Our Fight campaign to support the women of color who are ready to help lead the way to a more just, more inclusive, multiethnic and multiracial democratic society.

Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation. Jealous has decades of experience as a leader, coalition builder, campaigner for social justice and seasoned nonprofit executive. In 2008, he was chosen as the youngest-ever president and CEO of the NAACP. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and he has taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.


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