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Encore: President Biden has made choosing diverse federal judges a priority

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In President Biden's first two years in office, the Senate has confirmed 97 federal judges. And because Democrats held the Senate in last year's elections, there's a chance the Senate will confirm even more of Biden's nominees. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson looks at the long-term implications for the law and people's lives.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: President Biden has spent more than 30 years on the issue of judges, first in the Senate and now in the White House. Chief of staff Ron Klain has been by Biden's side through much of that work.

RON KLAIN: This has been a top priority for the president. And I think the record reflects that prioritization.

JOHNSON: Klain says there's a simple reason why the president's focus on the courts is so intense.

KLAIN: When he talks about rights and liberties, he knows that those rights and liberties are decided by federal judges. So the makeup of the federal judiciary is connected to everything else we do.

JOHNSON: Already, Biden has broken multiple records when it comes to his federal judge nominees. White House lawyer Paige Herwig says the effort is designed to make the courts look like the rest of America.

PAIGE HERWIG: We've confirmed 74 women as federal judges during this administration so far. That's actually more than were confirmed during the four years of President Trump's term or during the eight years of President George W. Bush's administration.

JOHNSON: That includes Dana Douglas, the first woman of color ever to serve on the 5th Circuit appeals court, and Doris Pryor, the first Black woman ever to sit on the 7th Circuit appeals court from Indiana. In all, Biden has nominated and helped win confirmation for 11 Black women to sit on the appeals courts, more than all other presidents combined. Janai Nelson is president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

JANAI NELSON: Our federal judiciary will finally begin to reflect the diversity of this country and the diversity of experiences that Black women in particular can bring to the bench.

JOHNSON: Biden's first move on judges involved promoting Ketanji Brown Jackson to the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. Judge Jackson is now Justice Jackson. Last year, she became the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. She's also the first justice who worked as a public defender. That's another area Biden has prioritized. Christopher Kang works at the group Demand Justice, which advocates for court reform and progressive-leaning judges. Kang says the president thinks about professional diversity, picking lawyers who represent individuals.

CHRISTOPHER KANG: They're public defenders representing people accused of crimes. They're civil rights lawyers. They're lawyers who are representing individuals who might have been discriminated against or harmed by defective products.

JOHNSON: Kang says Biden has already changed the face of the federal judiciary in a way that could linger for decades, since federal judges can serve for life. Janai Nelson of the Legal Defense Fund.

NELSON: The imprint that he has on the federal judiciary is one that might be the most durable in his entire legacy as a president and is certainly one of the most laudable accomplishments that he's made to date.

JOHNSON: This year, the Senate will remain in control of Democrats, who have mostly voted in lockstep to support Biden's judges. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said they're just getting started. It's unlikely Biden can shift the balance of power on every federal appeals court in the country over the next two years. That all depends on time and retirements of current judges. And as for the nation's highest court, former President Donald Trump cemented a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court, one that's already frustrated Biden's agenda on reproductive rights, climate change and gun safety measures.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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