Civil rights lawyer Nancy Abudu has been confirmed to the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, where she will be the first Black woman to sit on the Atlanta-based court.
The Senate confirmed Abudu 49-47 on Thursday amid GOP criticism of her work with the Southern Poverty Law Center, where she served as deputy legal director and interim director for strategic litigation.
She waited over a year for a confirmation vote, and was delayed in recent months by the absence of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) for health reasons. Abudu was opposed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), in a rare Democratic defection against one of President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees.
Abudu, 48, has litigated voting rights cases across the Deep South and at the national level for the SPLC and the American Civil Liberties Union. She’s challenged felon disenfranchisement, voter ID and proof of citizenship laws, and pushed for greater enforcement of federal voting-related laws in federal and state courts.
Her confirmation comes amid Biden’s broader effort to increase the demographic and professional diversity of the judiciary. Abudu, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, is the fourth Black woman nominated by Biden to serve on a federal appeals court that’s never had one before.
The civil rights lawyer will “bring a much needed perspective” to the Deep South bench “as the child of immigrants, as a Black woman, and as someone who has been knee-deep in complex issues of justice,” said Jennifer Ramo, who attended Tulane Law School with Abudu.
The Eleventh Circuit covers Georgia, Florida, and Alabama.
Civil Rights Work
Abudu began her full-time civil rights legal career at the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, where she expanded the organization’s focus on felony disenfranchisement. As a staff attorney and later senior staff counsel, she argued cases across the Eleventh, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits and handled other matters at the district court level.
In Calvin v. Jefferson Cnt. Bd. of Comm’rs, she argued successfully that the inclusion of roughly 2,400 local prisoners in a 200-person county’s voting district diluted the voting power in nearby districts and violated the “one person, one vote” principle. Abudu “single-handedly” crafted the legal strategy in the case, at a time when few states had outlawed prison-based gerrymandering, said Shalini Agarwal, Abudu’s co-counsel on the case.
Abudu also worked on cases involving free speech, religious freedom, same-sex marriage, and reproductive rights cases as the ACLU of Florida’s legal director.
At the SPLC, she has helped establish its first Voting Rights practice group and supervises voting rights litigation. She unsuccessfully challenged a Florida rule requiring full payment of felony conviction-related costs and restitution in order to vote, which disproportionately burdens women of color in the state, according to the SPLC.
At her confirmation hearing, Republicans derided the organization for its treatment of conservative-aligned organizations and some GOP lawmakers.
The SPLC has labeled “multiple Christian nonprofit organizations” as hate groups, and included Senate Judiciary Committee members Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on a list of members of Congress with “open white supremacist, nativist, anti-LGBT or antigovernment ties.”
Abudu, first nominated by Biden in December 2021, noted her work was separate from the SPLC division that would make those determinations. She also said she understood her role would be separate as a judge—a common statement at hearings by judicial nominees who have have been advocates.
Attorneys who have worked with Abudu say she makes trust-building a priority in her work.
Her clients’ marginalized backgrounds and challenging circumstances leave them skeptical that attorneys such as Abudu are “going to make them whole” again, said Agarwal, now counsel at Protect Democracy.
Abudu was known as a consensus builder at the ACLU of Florida, which, according to Agarwal, meant “getting people from very different camps” on board to support diverse litigation fights.
“She wants to bring everyone to the table,” said LaRonica Lightfoot, a long-time friend of Abudu and deputy general counsel at the Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission.
Early Life, Career
Abudu was born in Alexandria, Virginia, and influenced by the Pan-Africanist movement politics of her parents. She credited her father’s anti-apartheid activism in South Africa for her passion for voting rights and civic engagement, according to the Mercersburg Academy alumni magazine
“So when I came of age, I cast my ballot,” she said in an October 2021 forum at the school.
She graduated from Columbia University and Tulane Law School, where she was a student attorney at its environmental law clinic.
Listening to the voices of the mostly poor, Black communities that lived in “Cancer Alley,” a high-pollution corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, was important to her, according to Ramo.
Following law school, she worked at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom while continuing to do public interest work, including representing domestic violence victims for the Legal Aid Society of New York.
She later worked as a staff attorney at the Eleventh Circuit, where she was one of only a few Black staff attorneys, according to Lightfoot, a fellow Black woman staff attorney at the time.
Abudu also helped vet judicial and political candidates seeking endorsements from the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys, according to Terrica Ganzy, a friend of Abudu and the organization’s president.
The elevation of the circuit’s first Black woman judge holds great significance for Georgia’s Black legal community, Ganzy said.
“She used to bring her little girl to our political action committee meetings,” Ganzy said. “Getting to watch her ascent feels like we’re fulfilling our mission.”
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