Federal Judges? Let’s Start from the Beginning.

By Cedric Lawson

Two things that are hard to do: gather a group of people and get them to listen. Advocates have to be skilled at both. Now add this to the equation: a discussion of a sometimes boring, yet powerful topic of discussion. It’s a tall order. But I was up to the task at Netroots Nation, where I co-led a workshop in Chicago on federal judges last month.

Since 2006, Netroots Nation has hosted the largest annual conference for progressives, drawing thousands of attendees from around the country and beyond. At Netroots Nation this year, Alliance for Justice’s Keith Thirion and I guided eager advocates through the weird and wonky federal judicial nominations process. 

But why a workshop on judicial nominations? Recent court decisions — including from the U.S. Supreme Court — have demonstrated the very real impact that federal judges have on our day-to-day lives. Through many recent decisions, we see why it’s so important that we push for the confirmation of qualified and ethical judges who reflect and represent the diversity of our communities and have a demonstrated commitment to civil and human rights for all people.

Federal judges play a major role in promoting, protecting, and preserving civil and human rights. Sadly, federal judges can also play a role in restricting or eliminating these rights. Supreme Court justices are more visible in the media, and their decisions — especially ones that impact our daily lives on issues such as abortion access and the right to strike — are extensively covered by the press. However, hundreds of “lower court” judges, who sit on our federal district court and circuit courts, also make major decisions that impact our lives. But we don’t hear about them as often.

For example, have you heard of Judge Jay Moody? Nominated by President Obama and confirmed by a Senate under the leadership of then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, Judge Moody recently struck down as unconstitutional Arkansas’ first-in-the-nation ban on gender-affirming care for children. Then there’s Judge Kathryn Mizelle — nominated by President Trump and confirmed by a Senate under the leadership of then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — who struck down the federal mask mandate for airplanes and other modes of public transportation during the height of the pandemic. Federal judges at every level decide cases about what our daily lives will look like — one major case at a time.

There is a profound need for advocates to understand the deep impact that federal judges at every level of our judiciary have in our country. At The Leadership Conference, we continue to educate advocates, organizers, activists, and voters on the importance of our federal courts. It is imperative to demystify the role of the third branch of government in our daily lives.

Building on decades of experience in the field, Keith and I walked workshop participants through every step of the judicial nominations process and outlined key opportunities and methods for engaging communities across the country in the fight for federal judges who are committed to protecting and advancing civil rights and equal justice for all.

What can you do? If you are represented by senators, contact them and urge them to support and confirm fair-minded and diverse judicial nominees who are committed to civil and human rights. Every senator votes on the confirmation of every federal judge — so it’s up to all of us to make our voices heard.

Cedric Lawson is the field director at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.