The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced five of President Joe Biden’s first judicial nominees Thursday, including Ketanji Brown Jackson for the powerful D.C. Circuit, bringing them one step closer to confirmation.
Jackson, who is considered a potential future Supreme Court nominee, was approved 13-9. The committee also advanced the nomination of Candace Jackson-Akiwumi to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit 12-10.
While senators broke mostly along party lines on the appeals court nominees, the district court picks received more bipartisan support. Those nominees are District of Colorado nominee Regina Rodriguez, and District of New Jersey nominees Zahid Quraishi and Julien Neals.
The next step for the nominees are confirmation votes by the full Senate, which could happen as soon as next week.
Biden has moved quickly on judicial nominations, having put forward 19 candidates for lifetime federal judicial appointments and one nominee to the D.C. Superior Court. There are currently 111 current and expected vacancies for federal judgeships, of which 18 are in circuit courts and 91 are in district courts.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the committee’s ranking Republican, said his support for Biden’s circuit nominees will depend on whether they are committed to the original meaning of the Constitution. He was among the Republicans who voted against Jackson and Jackson-Akiwumi, though he voted in favor of all three district court picks.
“Unless a circuit court nominee can show me that he or she is affirmatively committed to the Constitution as originally understood, I don’t think he or she should be confirmed. It’s only a fair way of doing things,” Grassley said.
Grassley cited Democrats’ opposition President Donald Trump’s circuit court nominees, including those who were racially diverse, and said Democratic circuit nominees need to be held to “a high standard of constitutionalism, regardless of how impressive their credentials are and how compelling their personal stories may be.”
Jackson received support from only two Republicans, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Jackson-Akiwumi received only one Republican vote from Graham.
The most consistent opposition to the candidates came from senators considered potential Republican presidential candidate contenders. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), voted no on all five nominees. Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), also thought of as potential candidates, voted no on the circuit picks, Rodriguez, and Neals, but supported Quraishi.
If confirmed by the full Senate, this group of nominees would bring gender, racial and ethnic, and experiential diversity to their respective courts, making good on a promise from Biden.
Jackson, who would replace Attorney General Merrick Garland on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and Jackson-Akiwumi are Black women who have backgrounds in public defense, which is an uncommon experience for federal judges.
Just 1% of circuit court judges have spent the majority of their careers as public defenders or within a legal aid setting, according to an August 2020 Center for American Progress study. So far, all of Biden’s nominees for regional circuits have had public defense experience.
Jackson-Akiwumi would also join the only all-White circuit court. And Quraishi would be the first Muslim federal judge.
“These nominees will bring to the bench outstanding credentials and experience and a variety of professional perspectives that have been underrepresented many times in the judiciary,” Judiciary Chair Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said at the meeting.