Biden’s trailblazing federal judicial picks: Asian American, Hispanic nominees for Chicago spots

Sens. Durbin and Duckworth said John Lee and Nancy Maldonado will bring “demographic and professional diversity that will strengthen our federal bench.”

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Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks during an event celebrating her confirmation to the Supreme Court with President Joe Biden on the South Lawn of the White House on April 8, 2022.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks during an event celebrating her confirmation to the Supreme Court with President Joe Biden on the South Lawn of the White House on April 8, 2022.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — In another move to diversify the federal bench based in Chicago — long dominated by white males — President Joe Biden on Wednesday picked trailblazing Asian American and Hispanic nominees.

Biden nominated U.S. District Court Judge John Lee for a spot on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. If confirmed, Lee would be the first Asian American judge on the panel and the second person of color on the Chicago-based appeals court.

The president also picked his first nominee for a slot on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Nancy Maldonado, a partner at Miner, Barnhill & Galland P.C., will be, if confirmed, the first Hispanic woman to serve as a federal judge in Illinois.

Diversity on the federal courts across the nation — and in Illinois — has been a very long time coming.

Biden has made diversifying the federal bench a priority in his judicial nominations — numbering 90 so far — with his highest-profile nomination, Ketanji Brown Jackson, confirmed last week for the Supreme Court, making her the first Black woman on the high court.

On June 24, 2021, the Senate confirmed Candace Jackson-Akiwumi for the 7th Circuit. She became only the second Black woman ever on the 7th Circuit — and for now, the only person of color hearing cases from Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana.

Retired Judge Ann Claire Williams was the first Black woman to sit on Chicago-based federal district and appellate courts. Williams, in her role as the chair of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, testified on behalf of Jackson at her confirmation hearing.

Biden nominated Chicago attorney Tiffany Cunningham for a spot on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit based in Washington. She was confirmed on July 19, 2021, making the patent, trademark and other intellectual property lawyer the first Black judge to sit on this specialty appeals court.

At a White House ceremony on Friday with Jackson and Vice President Kamala Harris — the first woman of color to be vice president — Biden said, “It’s a powerful thing when people can see themselves in others.”

Biden teamed with Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate Judiciary chair, to put confirmation of his nominees on a fast track since, with the 2022 midterm elections looming, the Democrats may lose control of the Senate, now divided 50-50.

“And that’s one of the reasons I believed so strongly that we needed a Court that looks like America. Not just the Supreme Court. That’s why I’m proud to say, with the great help of Dick Durbin, I’ve nominated more Black women judges to the federal appellate courts than all previous presidents combined. Combined,” Biden said.


Lee is currently presiding over the case of former Mike Madigan chief of staff Timothy Mapes, who was also the Democratic Party of Illinois executive director when Madigan — himself under criminal indictment — was chair.

Former President Barack Obama picked Lee for a district court spot on Nov. 10, 2011, and he was confirmed on May 7, 2012.

At the time, Lee was a partner at the law firm of Freeborn & Peters LLP in Chicago, specializing in federal civil litigation. He was a partner at Freeborn between 1999 and 2012. Before that, he was at the Chicago law firms Mayer Brown LLP from 1994 to 1996 and at Grippo & Elden LLC from 1996 to 1999. 

Lee launched his legal career at the Justice Department as a trial attorney in the Environmental and Natural Resources Division.

He picked up his undergraduate degree from Harvard in 1989 and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1993.

Nancy Maldonado joined Miner, Barnhill & Galland in 2003 and became a partner in 2010. She specializes in civil litigation in a variety of areas, including employment law. 

She received her undergraduate degree from Harvard in 1997 and graduated from Columbia Law School in 2001.

Between 2001 and 2003, Maldonado clerked for now-retired U.S. District Court Judge Rubén Castillo, who was the first Latino district judge in the Chicago-based court.

The Biden White House made the nominations after consulting with Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, the Democratic Illinois senators. Before recommending a nominee for federal district court, U.S. attorney, and U.S. marshal positions in Illinois, Durbin and Duckworth get assistance in evaluating contenders through nonpartisan screening committees they established.

Durbin and Duckworth said in a joint statement, “We are pleased that President Biden has nominated Judge John Lee and Nancy Maldonado to fill judicial vacancies in Illinois. These nominees not only bring qualifications that are extraordinary, but also demographic and professional diversity that will strengthen our federal bench. We look forward to supporting their historic nominations in the Senate.”

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