President Biden last week appointed 11 people he plans to appoint to serve in federal courts, more than any recent president so early in his tenure. Nine are women, three are black women and one would become the country’s first Muslim federal judge.
I spoke to Carl Hulse, chief correspondent for Timess in Washington and author of a book on the Trump-era struggles for the justice system, why Biden is rushing to shape the courts and how judges are. become so essential to American politics. Our conversation was condensed.
Ian: Donald Trump’s judicial appointments were an integral part of his presidency, and now Biden appears to be making vacant staffing a priority. Why have the courts become so important?
Carl: Because the courts decide our political fights now. Climate change, voting rights, immigration, redistribution: because the legislative power is so stuck, the courts become the arbitrators. They have been magnified as a political issue because of their increased importance in resolving major cutting-edge issues.
Why is Biden in such a rush?
Democrats operate under the assumption that they are only two years old. They could easily lose the Senate next year, and then they would have to get bench candidates that Republicans would be willing to vote for. So I think I was going to see a big push from Biden.
So far, what sets the Bidens candidates apart from their predecessors?
Federal judicial candidates were typically someone from the United States Attorney’s Office, a local attorney, or a partner in a law firm. But after Trump put 220 judges there, many of whom were very conservative, most of them white and some of them with very little legal experience, the people of Biden concluded that they needed different kinds of people on the courts.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago has an all-white list of judges. So Biden chose Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, who is a black woman and a former Federal Public Defender. Public defenders see federal courts from a different perspective from the defendant’s point of view. It’s a big change. I think Biden wanted to make a statement about the types of judges he wants: people with different life and legal backgrounds.
There are currently 68 vacancies, with 26 more expected to open this year. Does that limit how transformative Biden can be?
The transformation will be done in the types of judges. Biden is going to have a hard time matching up Trump’s numbers, which were more than four years old. And it was a concerted campaign by Mitch McConnell, to the exclusion of many other things.
The big problem is the weather. You have the background checks and the hearings, and the Republicans are going to resist some of those people. Due to the changes to the filibuster rules, if every Democrat backs a candidate, they can pass. But it can be a long and drawn out process.
Is the focus on judges something Democrats have learned from Trump?
Presidents and senatorial majorities have always wanted to install judges who to some extent reflect their ideologies. But it’s definitely a bigger point of emphasis because of Trump. Democrats have watched what Senator McConnell has done successfully, and they are eager to replicate that at the other end of the ideological spectrum. Trump is going to have people on the bench for 30 years, maybe 40. There are still a few Reagan judges there.
Trump has appointed three judges to the Supreme Court. Many Democrats are hopeful that Stephen Breyer, 82, and one of the three remaining Liberals, will retire soon. Does this sound like Bidens’ best hope for a seat?
We’ll see what happens. Many Democrats don’t want to find themselves in this Ruth Bader Ginsburg situation again. And Judge Breyer is an extremely smart guy, and also a politician. He knows what’s going on here.
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