Phenomenal Women Are Improving the Federal Bench. We’re Pushing for More.
In October 2021, voting rights expert Myrna Pérez became the first civil rights lawyer to be confirmed to a federal appellate court during the Biden administration. For 15 years, she worked to defend the freedom to vote and safeguard our democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. A daughter of Mexican immigrants, Pérez became the only Latina serving on the Second Circuit and the first Latina to serve on the court since the elevation of Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
One week later, the Senate confirmed celebrated civil rights lawyer and then-Vermont Supreme Court justice Beth Robinson to join Pérez on the Second Circuit, where Robinson became the first openly lesbian judge to serve on any federal appellate court in our nation’s history. The following month, the Senate confirmed civil rights lawyer Jennifer Sung — whose career had been steeped in defending and protecting the rights of working people — to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. And a month after that, the Senate voted to confirm former NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund lawyer, Judge Holly Thomas, to the same court. Judges Sung and Thomas, respectively, became the first Asian American from Oregon and first Black woman from California to ever serve on the Ninth Circuit.
These four women — a Latina voting rights lawyer, an openly lesbian LGBTQ rights lawyer, an Asian American labor lawyer, and a Black civil rights lawyer — were all confirmed to federal appellate courts in a span of fewer than 90 days. This matters tremendously for our judiciary, for our rights, and for our democracy, and it has also come to represent a critically important and enduring hallmark of the Biden administration and the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin.
Recently, incredible civil rights lawyers Nancy Abudu, Julie Rikelman, and Rachel Bloomekatz were all confirmed to federal appellate courts. Judge Abudu, who spent years as a civil rights litigator at the ACLU’s voting rights project and the ACLU of Florida before joining the Southern Poverty Law Center, is now the first Black woman to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Judge Rikelman, who worked as litigation director at the Center for Reproductive Rights where she defended our right to bodily autonomy, including our constitutional right to abortion, became the first immigrant woman and first Jewish woman on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. And Judge Bloomekatz, who possesses an impressive legal background defending the freedom to vote and access to the ballot box, in addition to working on other critical civil rights issues, now serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
Since 2021, the Senate has confirmed 140 lifetime judges. Two-thirds (94) are women, and more than 40 percent (60) are women of color, including Native American women. At the circuit court level, three-fourths of these confirmed judges are women, and more than half are women of color.
This stands in stark contrast to former President Trump’s appointees, including his nomination of zero Black judges — and just one Latina judge — to federal circuit courts. For example, Trump appointed five white judges to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit after Senate Republicans blocked President Obama’s nomination of Myra Selby — a Black woman. These actions re-segregated the Seventh Circuit, which remained all-white until Biden’s historic appointment of former public defender Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi. Similarly, Trump appointed four judges to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, a court where a woman of color had never served. All four of his appointees were white men. Under Biden, the Third Circuit is now more professionally and demographically diverse with the confirmation of former public defender Judge Arianna Freeman, former Delaware Supreme Court Justice Tamika Montgomery-Reeves, and civil rights lawyer Judge Cindy Chung — all women of color.
Importantly, half of President Biden’s confirmed circuit court judges are women who have experience as a civil rights lawyer or public defender (or both), including the first Black woman and first former public defender on the U.S. Supreme Court — Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson — who was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit before her historic ascension to our nation’s highest court.
And at the district court level, notable civil rights lawyers like Margaret Strickland, Lauren King, Tana Lin, Jia Cobb, Sarah Geraghty, Charlotte Sweeney, Nina Morrison, Nancy Maldonado, Araceli Martínez-Olguín, Jessica Clarke, Nusrat Choudhury, Natasha Merle, and Tiffany Cartwright are now lifetime judges on courts across the nation. Eighteen women nominated by President Biden who are now serving on federal district courts also have experience as public defenders, including many of the aforementioned civil rights lawyers as well as Elizabeth Hanes, Kelley Hodge, Mia Perez, Kai Scott, Adrienne Nelson, and Margaret Guzman, among others.
The professional and demographic diversity these judges bring to our federal courts matters. Our diverse nation needs judges who reflect and represent all of us. And we know this: Demographic and professional diversity on our courts has been shown to increase public trust in the judiciary and improve judicial decision-making. More diverse courts include the perspectives of communities who have been traditionally excluded from seats of power in the judiciary’s formal and informal decision-making, and judges from different demographic and legal backgrounds infuse more viewpoints into judges’ deliberations. Diverse courts help communities trust that judicial decisions are fair and do not favor a select few like the wealthy and powerful.
This progress can’t stop here. Judicial nominees pending before the full Senate — including Judge Ana de Alba (Ninth Circuit), Susan DeClercq (Eastern District of Michigan), Judge Marion Gaston (Southern District of California), Judge Rita Lin (Northern District of California), and Mónica Ramírez Almadani (Central District of California) — must be swiftly confirmed when the Senate returns from its summer recess. And the president must continue to choose exceptional, diverse nominees committed to civil and human rights to fill all judicial vacancies. Right now, there are nearly 60 known vacancies without a named nominee. Communities across the nation are depending on the nomination and confirmation of highly qualified and diverse judges who are committed to equal justice — and we urge the White House to make this a priority.
The confirmation of phenomenal and diverse women who are committed to civil and human rights means that our federal judiciary is finally beginning to better reflect and represent the vast and rich diversity of our nation. Our coalition and Fair Courts Task Force have worked for decades in support of an equal justice judiciary, and we will continue to work alongside all people who are fighting for a future where every single judge is committed to achieving the promise inscribed on the Supreme Court: “Equal Justice Under Law.”
Confirmed Women Judges: Milestones and Historic Firsts
U.S. Supreme Court
- Justice KETANJI BROWN JACKSON (U.S. Supreme Court; elevated from D.C. Circuit), first Black woman and first former public defender on U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals
- Judge NANCY ABUDU (Eleventh Circuit), first Black woman and first Black judge from Georgia on Eleventh Circuit
- Judge DEANDREA BENJAMIN (Fourth Circuit), first Black woman from South Carolina on Fourth Circuit
- Judge CINDY CHUNG (Third Circuit), first Asian American judge on Third Circuit
- Judge TIFFANY CUNNINGHAM (Federal Circuit), first Black judge on Federal Circuit
- Judge STEPHANIE DAVIS (Sixth Circuit), first Black woman from Michigan on Sixth Circuit
- Judge ROOPALI DESAI (Ninth Circuit), first South Asian judge on Ninth Circuit
- Judge DANA DOUGLAS (Fifth Circuit), first woman of color on Fifth Circuit
- Judge ARIANNA FREEMAN (Third Circuit), first woman of color on Third Circuit
- Judge CANDACE JACKSON-AKIWUMI (Seventh Circuit), first former public defender and second judge of color on Seventh Circuit
- Judge LUCY KOH (Ninth Circuit), first Korean American woman on any federal appellate court
- Judge TAMIKA MONTGOMERY-REEVES (Third Circuit), first woman of color from Delaware on Third Circuit
- Judge ALISON NATHAN (Second Circuit), second openly LGBTQ woman on any federal appellate court
- Judge FLORENCE PAN (D.C. Circuit; elevated from District of D.C.), first AAPI woman to serve as lifetime judge on D.C. district court
- Judge DORIS PRYOR (Seventh Circuit), first Black judge from Indiana on Seventh Circuit
- Judge JULIE RIKELMAN (First Circuit), first Jewish woman and first immigrant woman on First Circuit
- Judge BETH ROBINSON (Second Circuit), first openly LGBTQ woman on any federal appellate court
- Judge JENNIFER SUNG (Ninth Circuit), first Asian American judge from Oregon on Ninth Circuit
- Judge HOLLY THOMAS (Ninth Circuit), first Black woman from California on Ninth Circuit
U.S. District Courts
- Judge AMANDA BRAILSFORD (District of Idaho), first woman to serve as lifetime judge on District of Idaho
- Judge VICTORIA CALVERT (Northern District of Georgia), first former public defender to serve as lifetime judge on Northern District of Georgia
- Judge NUSRAT CHOUDHURY (Eastern District of New York), first Muslim woman and first Bangladeshi American to serve as lifetime judge on any federal court
- Judge ANA DE ALBA (Eastern District of California), first Latina to serve as lifetime judge on Eastern District of California. Judge de Alba has been nominated to Ninth Circuit
- Judge LYDIA GRIGGSBY (District of Maryland), first woman of color to serve as lifetime judge on District of Maryland
- Judge MARGARET GUZMAN (District of Massachusetts), first Latina to serve as lifetime judge on District of Massachusetts
- Judge LAUREN KING (Western District of Washington), first Native American to serve as lifetime judge in Washington
- Judge SHALINA KUMAR (Eastern District of Michigan), first South Asian to serve as lifetime judge on any Michigan district court
- Judge TANA LIN (Western District of Washington), first Asian American to serve as lifetime judge in Washington
- Judge NANCY MALDONADO (Northern District of Illinois), first Latina to serve as lifetime judge in Illinois
- Judge GINA MÉNDEZ-MIRÓ (District of Puerto Rico), first openly LGBTQ lifetime judge on any federal court in First Circuit
- Judge SARALA NAGALA (District of Connecticut), first South Asian to serve as lifetime judge on District of Connecticut
- Judge ADRIENNE NELSON (District of Oregon), first woman of color to serve as lifetime judge on District of Oregon
- Judge JINSOOK OHTA (Southern District of California), first Asian American woman to serve as lifetime judge on Southern District of California
- Judge MIA PEREZ (Eastern District of Pennsylvania), first Asian American to serve as lifetime judge on Eastern District of Pennsylvania
- Judge ANA REYES (District of D.C.), first Latina and first openly LGBTQ lifetime judge on District of D.C.
- Judge REGINA RODRIGUEZ (District of Colorado), first Asian American to serve as lifetime judge on Colorado district court
- Judge CHARLOTTE SWEENEY (District of Colorado), first openly LGBTQ woman to serve as lifetime judge on any federal court west of the Mississippi River
- Judge SUNSHINE SYKES (Central District of California), first Native American to serve as lifetime judge on any California district court