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President Biden has made choosing diverse federal judges a priority

President Biden and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson celebrate her confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
President Biden and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson celebrate her confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Senate confirmed 97 federal judges during President Biden's first two years in office, setting records for the sheer numbers of jurists and their diversity.

In the end, federal courts may be one of Biden's deepest legacies, since judges often get the last word on what the law means and how it plays out in people's lives.

White House chief of staff Ron Klain said the judiciary has been a "top priority" for the president, and there's a simple reason why.

"When he talks about rights and liberties, he knows that in the end those rights and liberties are decided by federal judges, so the makeup of the federal judiciary is connected to everything else we do," Klain said.

White House lawyer Paige Herwig says the effort is a "sea change" designed to make the courts look like the rest of America.

"We've confirmed 74 women as federal judges during this administration so far," Herwig said. "That's actually more than were confirmed during the four years of President Trump's term or during the eight years of President George W. Bush's administration."

That total includes Dana Douglas, the first woman of color ever to serve on the 5th Circuit appeals court and Doris Pryor, the first Black woman ever to sit on the 7th Circuit appeals court from Indiana. In all, Biden has nominated and helped win confirmation for 11 Black women to sit on the appeals courts, more than all other presidents combined.

"Our federal judiciary will finally begin to reflect the diversity of this country and the diversity of experiences that Black women in particular can bring to the bench," said Janai Nelson, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Biden's first move on judges involved promoting Ketanji Brown Jackson to the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. Judge Jackson is now Justice Jackson. Last year, she became the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. She's also the first justice who worked as a public defender.

The area of professional diversity has been another focus of Biden's judge machine: picking lawyers with experience representing individual clients.

"They're public defenders representing people accused of crimes; they're civil rights lawyers; they're lawyers who are representing people who might have been discriminated against or harmed by defective products," said Christopher Kang of the group Demand Justice, which advocates for court reform and progressive-leaning judges.

Kang said Biden has already changed the face of the federal judiciary in a way that could linger for decades, since federal judges can serve for life.

That imprint "is one that might be the most durable in his entire legacy as a president," added Nelson, of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

In 2023, the Senate will remain in the control of Democrats, who have mostly voted in lockstep to support Biden's judges. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a recent statement that they're just getting started.

It's unlikely Biden can shift the balance of power on every federal appeals court in the country over the next two years. That all depends on time and retirements of current judges.

And as for the nation's highest court, former President Donald Trump cemented a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court, one that's already frustrated Biden's agenda on reproductive rights, climate change and gun safety measures.

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Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.