Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg embodied the power of federal courts to make our lives better. Her commitment to justice and equality changed our nation and our lives. This month is the 90th anniversary of her birth. And it is an inspiring time for those engaged in the long-term struggle to take back our courts from the Far Right.
Before she was a judge, Ginsburg broke barriers. She graduated from law school at a time when few women were lawyers – and when those who were couldn’t get hired at all-male law firms. As an ACLU litigator, she challenged deeply embedded sex discrimination through the courts, and she won. In the 1970s, the Supreme Court agreed with her that women are protected by the Constitution’s promise of equal protection.
She joined that Court in 1993. As a justice, she recognized that our laws don’t just protect the powerful and those with long-entrenched advantages. The law protects everybody, even those long targeted for mistreatment: women, LGBTQ+ people, working people, people of color, religious minorities, and more. Whether in the majority or in dissent, Justice Ginsburg understood how the law impacts everyday people.
We need more judges like that. And thanks to President Biden and Senate Democrats, that’s what we’re getting.
On the Supreme Court: Justice Jackson
Most prominently, there’s Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. Her brilliance, her deep commitment to civil rights, and her years of experience both on and off the bench made her an inspired choice. She is bringing her lived experience to a court that has never before had a Black woman justice, sharing her perspective about day-to-day life in the United States and how the legal system affects people’s rights and lives.
Other Biden Judges Breaking Barriers
But she’s hardly alone. Across the nation, on our federal circuit and district courts, we’re getting more and more judges who recognize that the law should protect all of us, not just the powerful. They also bring demographic, professional, and experiential diversity to the bench, which makes them better able to understand the lived experiences of those whose cases come before them.
Like Justices Ginsburg and Jackson, many of our new judges are breaking barriers.
No women of color had ever been judges on the Third or Fifth Circuit until Biden nominated – and the Senate confirmed – Arianna Freeman and Dana Douglas. The Ninth Circuit had never had a South Asian judge until Roopali Desai. No Asian American had ever been a judge on the Third or Seventh Circuit until Cindy Chung and John Lee were confirmed. No appeals court judge had ever been an openly LGBTQ+ women until Beth Robinson and Alison Nathan (both Second Circuit). The Federal Circuit has its first Black judge, Tiffany Cunningham.
In New Jersey, Zahid Quraishi became the nation’s first Muslim federal judge, a barrier that would have fallen earlier had Senate Republicans not blocked a Muslim district court nominee under President Obama. Puerto Rico, Washington DC, Colorado, the Eastern District of Virginia, and the Eastern District of California have their first openly LGBTQ+ district court judges.
Making History: Record Number of Black Women Circuit Court Judges
President Biden has had 12 Black women confirmed to the circuit courts. That’s 50 percent more than all previous presidents combined. In fact, more than a third of all of Biden’s circuit court nominees have been Black women, shattering the previous record set by President Obama. Among the most recently confirmed circuit judges are Dana Douglas (the first woman of color on the Fifth Circuit), Doris Pryor (the first person of color from Indiana on the Seventh Circuit), and DeAndrea Benjamin (the second woman of color ever on the Fourth Circuit).
Dedication to Protecting Vulnerable People’s Rights
President Biden has also named more federal circuit judges with experience as public defenders than all previous presidents combined. They include Arianna Freeman (Third Circuit), Candace Jackson-Akiwumi (Seventh Circuit), and Eunice Lee (Second Circuit), all Black women who add such needed personal experience as well as diversity to their courts. Other career public defenders now adding their voices to their appeals courts’ deliberations include Lara Montecalvo (First Circuit) and Veronica Rossman (Tenth Circuit).
Our courts are being filled with people who have dedicated their careers to helping others protect their rights. Myrna Pérez was a career voting rights defender with the Brennan Center when President Biden nominated her to the Second Circuit. Jennifer Sung had extensive experience as an advocate for labor when she was nominated to the Ninth Circuit. Beth Robinson was the co-founder and leader of Vermont Freedom to Marry, then became the first openly LGBTQ+ woman ever to serve on the Vermont Supreme Court. Now she is on the Second Circuit.
Still Before the Senate
Getting such terrific people on the courts has not been easy. Republicans are pulling out the stops to keep Nancy Abudu off the Eleventh Circuit. She’s currently the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Deputy Legal Director. They are also fighting against New York nominees Nusrat Choudhury (deputy director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program) and Dale Ho (director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project). Another target is Brad Garcia, who has a substantial record of pro bono work representing disadvantaged individuals. Once confirmed, he will be the first Latino on the powerful D.C. Circuit.
In a 51-49 Senate filled with Republicans who want to maintain their control of the nation’s courts, nothing comes easy. But the struggle is worth it.
The Impact of Biden Judges
Although they have not been on the bench for long, Biden judges are already issuing decisions that protect the rights of all people. For instance:
Fourth Circuit Judge Toby Heytens stopped enforcement of vague state laws in South Carolina that criminalized “disorderly” or “disturbing” conduct in schools. The law was disproportionately enforced against Black students and had lifetime repercussions.
Seventh Circuit Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi ruled that students should have a chance to seek refunds from large universities for in-person classes cancelled due to COVID-19. She also cast the deciding vote that an employee claiming age bias and harassment against a corporation should get to present his case to a jury.
Second Circuit Judge Eunice Lee put back into place a New York gun safety law that was stopped by a highly criticized lower court decision. In Colorado, Judge Regina Rodriguez upheld the federal law barring people convicted of a felony from possessing firearms.
In Georgia, Judge Victoria Calvert halted enforcement of a state election law that violated the rights of nonpartisan groups seeking to register and engage historically marginalized people.
And at the Supreme Court? Given the current 6-3 far right majority, Justice Jackson is likely to speak more in dissent than with the majority … for now. In the meantime, as she inspires millions of people around the country, we will continue to organize and do the hard work needed to take back our courts.