President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees with public defender backgrounds are being “singled out for extra criticism” during the confirmation process, a coalition of more than 50 legal groups, including multiple state criminal defense organizations, said in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee leaders.
The letter, sent Wednesday, follows questions from Judiciary Committee Republicans about whether public defenders and criminal defense lawyers would be able to handle the more general docket of a federal court or be fair-minded.
“We reject any suggestion that public defenders and criminal defense lawyers are any less well-prepared for the bench than lawyers from prosecutor and civil practice backgrounds,” the groups said in the letter.
The letter was sent to Judiciary Chair Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee’s ranking Republican. Signers include Demand Justice, FAMM, Black Public Defender Association, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and The Sentencing Project.
Biden has prioritized diversity in his judicial appointments, including professional diversity. To achieve that, many of his judicial nominees thus far have had experience as public defenders.
Just 1% of circuit court judges have spent the majority of their careers as public defenders or within a legal aid setting, according to a 2020 Center for American Progress study.
Prosecutors and lawyers focused on civil litigation—common background experience for federal judges—don’t attract the same skepticism as defenders, the groups wrote in the letter.
The questions from Republicans also are at odds with the bipartisan agreement on efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system, they wrote.
Republicans have cast defender experience as something to be concerned about.
At a June committee markup, Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said nominees with backgrounds primarily in criminal defense “may not be up to the task of serving as a generalist judge” at a committee markup.
And at a June confirmation hearing, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) quizzed a public defender nominee for the New York-based federal appeals court about civil procedure.