WASHINGTON — The Wednesday confirmation hearing for Candace Rae Jackson-Akiwumi, nominated by President Joe Biden to sit on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, threw a spotlight on the fact that the Chicago-based panel is all white and the lack of Black women and criminal defense attorneys in the federal judiciary.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., highlighted the absence of diversity on the 7th, which handles cases from Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. The 7th, said Blumenthal, “presides over 7.5 million people of color, and its jurisdiction includes Chicago, Milwaukee and Indianapolis among other cities, yet all of the judges currently sitting on the court are white in 2021.
“I am dumbstruck. It’s breathtaking that a federal circuit court in any part of our country is all white,” Blumenthal said.
If confirmed, Jackson-Akiwumi will be the very rare judge who brings the perspective of a public defender to the bench and one of only a few Black women ever on federal appeals courts. It’s believed that in the history of the U.S., there have been only eight Black female appeals judges.
A partner in a D.C. law firm since last year, Jackson-Akiwumi spent a formative 10 years, between 2010 and 2020, as a staff attorney at the Federal Defender Program for the Northern District of Illinois.
If confirmed, as expected — Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin recruited her for the position — she will mark two milestones: Jackson-Akiwumi will be only the second Black woman ever on the 7th Circuit and will be the only person of color on the 11-member Chicago appeals court.
Jackson-Akiwumi and U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Biden’s pick to replace Attorney General Merrick Garland on the appeals court in Washington — and mentioned as a prospect for a Supreme Court vacancy — were among five of Biden’s court picks before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. They are both former public defenders.
Durbin called it a “historic day” because the Biden slate of nominees were all people of color and also represented “demographic and professional diversity.”
Former President Donald Trump, Durbin noted, did not nominate any Black appeals court judges among the 54 he tapped in his four years.
Durbin also pointed out how — and this is my word — Republicans stole a seat on the 7th after a Black female judge was nominated for it in order to keep it open for a GOP president to fill.
Ex-President Barack Obama nominated Myra Consetta Selby to the 7th on Jan. 12, 2016 — with almost a year left to his term. Selby, the first Black associate justice on the Indiana Supreme Court, would have been, if confirmed, the second Black woman on the 7th, with retired Judge Ann Williams the first and, so far, only.
Republicans, who then controlled the Senate, never gave Selby a hearing, and her nomination expired when Obama left office. It’s the same scheme the GOP-run Senate used to block Obama’s nomination of Garland for the Supreme Court in order to keep the seat open for a Republican nominee.
Trump filled the spot — with Amy Coney Barrett, who went on to become his third Supreme Court pick.
Jackson-Akiwumi and Jackson are among those in Biden’s first wave of 11 judicial nominations, where he made good on a promise to diversify the white, male-dominated federal bench as well as to draw on lawyers with different backgrounds.
Jackson-Akiwumi, a graduate of Princeton and Yale law school, was asked during the hearing about the role of race in judicial decisions.
“I don’t believe race will play a role in the type of judge that I would be if confirmed,” she said.
“I do believe that demographic diversity of all types, even beyond race, plays an important role in increasing public confidence in our courts and increases the public’s ability to accept the legitimacy of court decisions.
“It’s very akin to the way in which we guarantee a jury of one’s peers.” She also said that “demographic diversity of all types” creates role models for “anyone aspiring to public service.”
In her Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire, Jackson-Akiwumi revealed how her nomination was in the works even before Biden was president. She said Durbin’s staff reached out to her about the 7th Circuit vacancy last Dec. 30, a few weeks before Biden was sworn-in. After preliminary interviews, she wrote, “On March 4, 2021, I met with President Biden and White House Counsel Dana Remus at the White House concerning the nomination. On March 30, 2021, the President announced his intent to nominate me.”