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Fair Courts E-Lert: Legal Advocacy Groups Respond to GOP Criticism of Judicial Nominees with Criminal Defense Backgrounds

This Fair Courts E-Lert highlights a letter sent by legal advocacy groups to leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee responding to Republican criticism of judicial nominees with criminal defense backgrounds, Tiffany Cunningham’s confirmation as the first Black Federal Circuit judge, and more.

Last Updated: July 30, 2021
Published: July 30, 2021

Legal Advocacy Groups Respond to Criticism of Judicial Nominees with Criminal Defense Backgrounds 

On July 14, more than 55 legal advocacy groups – public defenders, civil rights groups, criminal justice reform advocates, and more – sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee leadership “expressing concern that public defenders and criminal defense lawyers nominated to federal judgeships are being unfairly criticized during the confirmation process.” 

The letter responds to comments by Republican senators that the groups say single out public defenders and criminal defense lawyers as being unable to handle complex civil cases or be fair-minded, such as Sen. Ted Cruz’s comment that judges with defense backgrounds would “naturally side with the criminal defendants.” The letter answers: “we reject any suggestion that public defenders and criminal defense lawyers are any less well-prepared for the bench than lawyers from prosecutor and civil practice backgrounds.” 

Citing a 2020 study by the Center for American Progress which found that only 1% of circuit court judges had spent their careers as public defenders, the letter also argues that the presence of criminal defense lawyers would strengthen the court system. “Improving professional diversity on the bench is important for protecting the legitimacy of the court system, improving judicial decision making, and encouraging talented young lawyers to consider public interest careers.” 

Tiffany Cunningham Confirmed as First Black Judge on Federal Circuit 

On July 19, the U.S. Senate confirmed Tiffany Cunningham to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit by a bipartisan vote. She will be the first Black judge to sit on the nation’s highest patent court, which is also the only federal appeals court to never have had a Black judge. 

President Biden has prioritized diversity in his judicial nominations and the confirmation of many of his nominees mark historical firsts for the federal judiciary. Zahid Quraishi, for example, was confirmed last month as the first Muslim American federal judge in U.S. history, and Lydia Griggsby, also confirmed last month, will be the first woman of color to serve as a federal judge in Maryland. Many of Biden’s nominees also come from underrepresented professional backgrounds, including multiple public defenders and civil rights attorneys. 

During the Biden administration, judges are being nominated and confirmed at an unprecedented rate. CNN reports “[s]ix months into Biden’s presidency, eight of his judicial nominees have been confirmed. That is more than any other president at the same point in the last 50 years.” 

Texas Lawmakers Consider Bills Targeting State Courts During Special Session 

The Texas legislature returned to work in early July for a 30-day special session. Legislators have since filed hundreds of bills, including at least five bills targeting the power of state courts in election and abortion cases. 

Two omnibus voter suppression bills (HB 3 and SB 1) include provisions that would limit the ability of state courts to alter or suspend state election laws to accommodate voters in the event of a natural disaster or pandemic. Another bill (HB 103) would outlaw abortion and require courts in the state to enforce the prohibition regardless of any contrary federal law or court decision.

While SB 1 and HB 3 have been voted out of committee, no bills are expected to pass during the special session because Texas House Democrats have fled the state to prevent a quorum. 

Texas is not alone in considering bills this year that would politicize or undermine the role of their state’s courts. The Brennan Center has found that as of May 14, legislators in at least 25 other states have considered at least 93 such bills. 

New State Supreme Court Justices in New Mexico and Georgia 

On July 19, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed Judge Briana Zamora to the New Mexico Supreme Court, maintaining the court’s female majority. Prior to Zamora’s appointment, she served on the New Mexico Court of Appeals. She will replace Justice Barbara J. Vigil, who retired on June 30. 

On July 20, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp appointed Judge Verda Colvin to the Georgia Supreme Court, making her the first Black woman appointed to the state’s high court by a Republican governor. Colvin, who was appointed to the Georgia Court of Appeals by Governor Kemp last year, was sworn in on July 29.  

Brennan Center research documents the importance of diversity among state supreme court justices, finding that “judicial diversity enriches judicial decision-making, promotes public confidence in the judiciary, and establishes role models across demographic groups.” As of April 2021, in 22 states, no justices publicly identified as a person of color, and in 12 states, there is only one woman on the supreme court bench.