Chicago attorney Tiffany Cunningham sprints through Senate Judiciary Committee hearing

If confirmed, she will be the first Black judge to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in D.C.

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Chicago attorney Tiffany Cunningham at her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing.


WASHINGTON — Chicago attorney Tiffany Cunningham, tapped by President Joe Biden to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit here, sprinted through her Wednesday confirmation hearing, with Sen. Cory Booker underscoring the lack of Black judges on the federal bench.

If confirmed, Cunningham will be the first Black judge to sit on this specialty appeals court, with a focus on patent, trademark and other intellectual property cases.

For almost all of her career, Cunningham practiced intellectual property litigation with an emphasis on patent law at two Chicago law firms.

Her short hearing — less than 30 minutes, depending how you count — and total lack of controversial questions suggests she is on a glide path to Senate confirmation.

Senate Judiciary Chair Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., noted in his opening that Cunningham will “be ready from day one to serve on the bench. She has the technical expertise, deep knowledge of patent law and almost 20 years of experience as a litigator.”

And when confirmed, “Cunningham will be the first Black judge to serve on the Federal Circuit. This historic nominee will bring both professional and racial diversity to the court,” Durbin said.

Booker, a Democrat who is the first Black senator elected from New Jersey, reflected on this.

“This is one of those moments where I feel this sense of exhaustion, and, and exaltation at the same time. And we are in this period, almost 250 years of American history, where we still are counting, the first Black person to do this, the first Black person to do this,” Booker said.

Continuing, he added, there is “a long and tortured history of federal courts in this country from Dred Scott to Plessy versus Ferguson to even recent decisions that troubled me on voting rights,” said Booker, referring to Supreme Court cases treating Blacks as property or upholding segregation.

“But we have to mark these moments where we are making extraordinary progress — the witness before us today is an extraordinary human being, By any measure, and I just want to say for the record that the history of our country, our ancestors Black and white, a rainbow coalition of people that have struggled to make a day like this possible. Our ancestors are rejoicing, and I’m so grateful to see the witness before us today.”

Biden has been focusing on diversity in his first waves of judicial picks, seeking to change the makeup of a federal judiciary that is overwhelming white and male.

Only eight Black women have served as appeals court judges in U.S. history, according to History Office at the Federal Judicial Center, the education and research agency for the federal courts.

Cunningham, a patent and intellectual property attorney, is one of three Black women Biden has nominated to appeals courts.

Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, a former federal public defender in Chicago, is waiting for a Senate confirmation vote for a seat on the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Since 2014, Cunningham has been a partner at Perkins Coie in the Loop and a member of the firm’s top management team. Before that, she was a partner in Kirkland & Ellis. She will give up a lucrative career in private practice for a lower-paying lifetime federal judicial appointment.

She brings a rarefied resume to the bench. She majored in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating in 1998, before picking up her law degree at Harvard in 2001.

According to her Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire, Biden and White House Counsel Dana Remus interviewed her March 26, and four days later — on March 30 — Biden announced his intent to nominate her.

Cunningham, in her remarks, cited her parents — her mother, a high school English teacher in the Detroit Public Schools and her father, a Vietnam war vet who worked in Detroit’s auto industry.

Durbin asked Cunningham — who was born in 1976 and will be 45 on Thursday — why she wanted to give up her career “at the top of your game.”

Said Cunningham, “Senator, I can tell you that this is literally my dream job.”

She was a clerk to one of the judges on the court in 2001 and 2002. In one of her first days walking around, she saw pictures of the judges on the wall.

“And I saw a court that had fine, fine, jurists, but it was very homogeneous, if I must admit, all white judges and only two women at that time. And at that point in time, I kind of put it in my mental vision board that one day I could be a judge at that court.”

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