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President Biden picks ex-federal public defender Candace Jackson-Akiwumi for Chicago federal appeals court seat

Biden also nominated Chicago lawyer Tiffany Cunningham for the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington.

Candace Jackson-Akiwumi
Candace Jackson-Akiwumi
Zuckerman Spaeder

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced his first 11 judicial nominees on Tuesday, a historic diverse mix that includes two lawyers from Chicago: Candace Jackson-Akiwumi for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and Tiffany Cunningham for the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Jackson-Akiwumi and Cunningham, both Black women, if confirmed, would add diversity to the federal bench, which is overwhelmingly made up of white men across the nation.

The Chicago-based Seventh Circuit currently has no Black judges. If confirmed, Jackson-Akiwumi, a former federal public defender, would be only the second Black woman to serve the Seventh. The first was Judge Ann Claire Williams, who retired in 2018.

Tiffany Cunningham, an intellectual property and patent attorney, and a partner at Perkins Coie LLP in Chicago, would be the first Black judge on the D.C. based Federal Circuit court.

Biden is pushing to quickly diversify the federal judiciary in sharp contrast to the almost all white, male picks of former President Donald Trump. Biden promised during his campaign that he would nominate a Black woman to fill his first Supreme Court vacancy.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday reaffirmed Biden’s Supreme Court commitment. “Absolutely,” she said.

Biden’s first wave of judicial nominees comes early in his term and is intended to mitigate one of Trump’s major legacies — his 226 federal district and appeals judges named in his single term, plus three members of the Supreme Court. White House chief of staff Ron Klain noted in a Tweet that in their first 100 days Trump only nominated two federal judges; ex-president Barack Obama tapped three and George W. Bush and Bill Clinton none.

Psaki said Biden’s first slate of judges “represents a paradigm shift in the type of people who can see themselves on the federal bench while still maintaining the President’s absolute highest standards for the qualifications, integrity, and fairness of each individual being considered.”

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who studies judicial selections, said in an interview that Biden seeking out judicial nominees from a variety of backgrounds provides “experiential diversity” because “different people” have “different perspectives.”

Of Biden’s 11 nominees, 9 are women; four have been public defenders; four come from the AAPI community and one, if confirmed would be the nation’s first Muslim-American judge, Psaki said.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, noted that lack of diversity in the Seventh Circuit in his statement.

“As a former federal public defender, Ms. Jackson-Akiwumi brings with her an important perspective that is a valuable asset to the judiciary,” he said.

Jackson-Akiwumi, 41, is a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP in Washington focusing on white collar criminal defense and complex civil litigation.

Jackson-Akiwumi, worked in Chicago from 2010 to 2020 as a staff attorney at the federal defender program in the Northern District of Illinois. There, the White House said, she “represented more than 400 indigent clients accused of federal crimes at every stage of the process, from investigation to trial, sentencing, and appeal.”

In a biography posted on the website of the Yale Law School — where she graduated in 2005 — Jackson-Akiwumi said of her public defender job: “I work harder and longer hours than I did as a law firm associate. But I do not mind the harder work, longer hours and lower pay because my job has meaning to me. I provide quality representation to people who would not be able to afford it, and I am there for clients at a most dreary and frightening juncture: when they are being judged for the worst day or days in their life.”

Before that, she was a litigation associate at the Chicago office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom from 2007 to 2010.

Jackson-Akiwumi received her undergraduate degree from Princeton University in 2000. She would replace Judge Joel Flaum, who took senior status in November.

Tiffany Cunningham, an intellectual and patent attorney, who is a partner at Perkins Coie LLP in Chicago, was nominated for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington.
Tiffany Cunningham
Courtesy of Perkins Coie

As for Cunningham, she joined Perkins Coie in 2014. She has handled trial and appellate cases “for large multinational companies, as well as small enterprises, and individuals in complex patent and trade secret disputes,” according to a White House biography.

She previously was a partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, joining the firm in 2002 as an associate. She became a partner in 2007 and left in 2014.

Cunningham received her undergraduate degree in 1998 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she majored in chemical engineering. She is a 2001 graduate of Harvard Law School.