Confirming Civil Rights Lawyers to the Federal Bench Matters

Courts Resources 07.10,23

In the fall of 1979, the Senate was busy working to confirm President Carter’s judicial nominees.

In September, Matthew J. Perry, the chief counsel of the South Carolina state conference of the NAACP, became the first Black federal judge to be appointed in the Deep South. In October, civil rights lawyer and leader Nathaniel Jones, general counsel of the NAACP, became the first Black judge from Ohio on the Sixth Circuit. In November, Cecil Poole, who served as a director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and as a national trustee of the National Urban League, became the first Black judge from California to serve on the Ninth Circuit. And in early December, iconic civil rights lawyer Horace Ward became the first Black federal judge in Georgia to be confirmed by the Senate. Former public defender Anne Elise Thompson became the first woman and first Black federal lifetime judge in New Jersey, and — on the same day — Anna Diggs Taylor, known as a fierce defender of civil rights, became the first Black woman to serve as a federal lifetime judge in Michigan and on any court within the Sixth Circuit.

The Senate confirmed other judicial nominees that fall. But that these trailblazing lawyers were all confirmed in less than three months mattered profoundly for civil rights, for our democracy, and for our federal judiciary — and it mattered for decades to come.

Nearly 45 years later, our judiciary is now experiencing another wave of confirmations of impressive civil rights lawyers to the federal bench. And though the Biden administration and Senate have made extraordinary progress towards building an equal justice judiciary since 2021, the Senate’s recent confirmation of six diverse civil rights lawyers — in a span of just eight days in June — stands out as a remarkable triumph for equal justice in America.

The powerful importance of confirming more civil rights lawyers, former public defenders, and other diverse nominees committed to equal justice became even more pronounced — and even more urgent — following a Supreme Court term that saw rulings rolling back affirmative action in higher education, LGBTQ rights, and student loan debt relief, among other harmful decisions. But we also know that the Supreme Court hears a small number of cases each term — which is why it matters who is selected to serve on federal district and circuit courts across the nation.

Recent confirmations include:

  • Judge Hernán Vera, confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, served for 12 years at Public Counsel, the largest pro bono law firm in the nation, where he created an impact litigation department for economic injustice. He also served as an attorney at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
  • Judge Casey Pitts, confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, dedicated his career to protecting and defending the rights of working people and has successfully challenged unfair labor practices across the country. Pitts is now the only openly LGBTQ Article III judge actively serving on this court.
  • Judge Dale Ho, confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, served as director of the voting rights project at the ACLU. He successfully challenged the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the census and opposed its efforts to exclude unauthorized immigrants from calculations used to determine representation in Congress.
  • Judge Nusrat Choudhury, confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, has worked tirelessly challenging discriminatory policies that target communities of color throughout her impressive career at the ACLU. Choudhury is now the first Muslim woman and first Bangladeshi American ever to serve as a lifetime federal judge.
  • Judge Julie Rikelman, confirmed to a Massachusetts seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, served as litigation director at the Center for Reproductive Rights, where she defended our right to bodily autonomy, including our right to access abortion. Rikelman is now the first immigrant woman and first Jewish woman to serve on the First Circuit.
  • Judge Natasha Merle, confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, served as the deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., where she led critical civil rights lawsuits on the freedom to vote and discriminatory sentencing practices. Importantly, Merle has also served as a federal public defender.

These confirmations matter tremendously. Civil rights lawyers have historically been excluded from and underrepresented on the federal bench. Critically, we know that judges from different legal and demographic backgrounds — like these six judges — will infuse more viewpoints into judges’ conversations and that diverse courts help communities trust that judicial decisions are not biased in favor of a select few. They will also inspire future judges who will see people who look like them on the bench.

The Senate also recently confirmed civil rights lawyer Nancy Abudu, who is now the first Black woman on the 11th Circuit — and the first Black judge to serve in a Georgia seat on this court. After spending years as a civil rights litigator at the ACLU’s voting rights project and the ACLU of Florida, Judge Abudu joined the Southern Poverty Law Center to help establish its Voting Rights Practice Group. Three days before her confirmation, Brad Garcia became the first Latino judge to serve on the D.C. Circuit. Judge Garcia has a strong record of defending civil rights, including protecting the constitutional rights of people involved in the criminal-legal system, defending abortion access, and protecting immigrants from unlawful deportation.

President Biden and the Senate must not stop now. Already, the Senate is set to vote this week on civil rights lawyer Tiffany Cartwright to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. But there are many other incredible nominees awaiting confirmation, including:

There are also many judicial vacancies awaiting nominees, and we urge President Biden and the Senate to prioritize filling all of these seats as soon as possible.

Today, our democracy — and our hard-won civil and human rights — are under attack. To bolster our democracy, we must strengthen our federal judiciary so that it works for everyone. This includes insisting that the president continues to nominate, and the Senate continues to confirm, highly qualified judicial nominees who are professionally and demographically diverse and committed to civil and human rights. The Leadership Conference and the civil rights community have been at the forefront of this work for decades because we know that each confirmation of a judicial nominee who is dedicated to equal justice makes a difference in the lives of people who appear in that judge’s courtroom and to all of us who are impacted by their decisions.

The work of building an equal justice judiciary is the work of every generation — and it’s never been more important. The civil rights community isn’t stopping now.