Our Federal Bench Needs More Civil Rights Lawyers Like Nancy Abudu

Courts Resources 04.26.22

In March 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, and thousands of courageous advocates marched from Selma to Montgomery in their quest for the right to vote — a march that could only legally proceed after a federal judge in Alabama approved it. Two decades later, when President Reagan nominated an anti-civil rights attorney named Jefferson Beauregard Sessions to the federal bench in that state, Coretta Scott King — understanding the power of federal courts — wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee to voice her opposition.

“Based on his record, I believe his confirmation would have a devastating effect on not only the judicial system in Alabama,” King wrote, “but also on the progress we have made everywhere toward fulfilling my husband’s dream that he envisioned over twenty years ago.” Sessions’ nomination failed.

This week, on what would have been Coretta Scott King’s 95th birthday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider the nomination of Nancy Abudu — a Black woman and civil rights lawyer — to serve on the federal appellate court that oversees Alabama, Florida, and Georgia and the region’s large Black population. Abudu has spent her career advancing equal justice and has significant experience working to protect the fundamental freedom to vote — the same freedom that motivated the 1965 march.

It was Sessions’ deeply troubling voting rights record that convinced Coretta Scott King to oppose his confirmation. And it is Abudu’s commitment to protecting our democracy today — including her crucial experience protecting the right to vote — that has won her the strong support of civil rights organizations that for decades have scrutinized the records of judicial nominees.

Since 2019, Abudu has worked at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) — a member of our coalition — where she currently serves as the director of strategic litigation. She joined SPLC to help establish its Voting Rights Practice Group after spending years litigating on behalf of clients seeking equal access to the ballot box with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project and the ACLU of Florida. Her extensive legal experience includes work on several cases to protect the right to vote for many marginalized communities — including formerly incarcerated people, low-income people, people of color, and people with disabilities.

This matters tremendously, especially given the number of civil rights cases the Eleventh Circuit hears and the historic exclusion and underrepresentation of civil rights lawyers on the federal bench. It also matters that — if confirmed — Abudu would be the first Black woman to ever serve on the Eleventh Circuit and the first Black person ever to serve in a Georgia seat on this court. The Eleventh Circuit is home to nearly 8 million Black people, yet Abudu would be only the third Black judge in the court’s history.

Courts that are more racially diverse include the perspectives of communities who have been traditionally excluded from seats of power. We also know that judges from different legal and demographic backgrounds 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. This is the potential impact of Abudu’s confirmation.

Coretta Scott King also knew this was critically important: “The federal courts hold a unique position in our constitutional system, ensuring that minorities and other citizens without political power have a forum in which to vindicate their rights,” she wrote in her 1986 letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Because of this unique role, it is essential that the people selected to be federal judges respect the basic tenets of our legal system: respect for individual rights and a commitment to equal justice for all.”

Nancy Abudu will be that kind of judge — a fair-minded jurist committed to equal justice and the protection of civil rights. And the truth is this: As communities within the Eleventh Circuit and throughout the nation face a level of challenges to their freedom to vote not seen since the Jim Crow era, our judiciary will greatly benefit from the service of judges like Abudu — who has dedicated her career to strengthening our democracy.

We call on the Senate to confirm Nancy Abudu to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit without delay.