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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.