Civil Rights Lawyer Julie Rikelman Is the Jurist Our Courts Deserve

This op-ed was originally published on The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on six more of President Biden’s nominees to U.S. federal courts. Included among the impressive slate of nominees was civil rights lawyer Julie Rikelman, who is nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

Rikelman, who currently serves as the litigation director at the Center for Reproductive Rights, would make history as the first immigrant woman and first Jewish woman to ever serve on this court if confirmed. And this personal experience and family history—she and her family came to the United States as refugees from Ukraine—have been central to the way that she approaches the law.

“My parents came here to escape communism and antisemitism because of this country’s commitment to the rule of law. And so nothing is more important to me than that,” Rikelman said during her confirmation hearing. “And I think it was because of those experiences as a child that I became interested in issues of justice and I became an attorney. I wanted to be an attorney because I believe so deeply in our justice system and the promise of equal justice for all.”

Rikelman has shown a commitment to equal justice throughout her legal career. She has significant experience as a civil rights lawyer—a legal background in protecting the rights of all people, which remains glaringly underrepresented in our federal courts. She has defended the right to bodily autonomy by protecting the rights of people seeking access to abortion and other kinds of reproductive health care, and she has worked to defend the freedom to vote. Rikelman is well-respected for her legal mind and appellate experience—including arguing two constitutional rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rikelman has worked tirelessly to safeguard the protections guaranteed in the Constitution. Because of this substantial experience working toward equal justice, she understands deeply the role of a judge—and why having fair-minded judges matters.

“Throughout my career, I have relied on federal judges around the country to follow the law regardless of their personal views or their previous work experiences,” Rikelman said. “That is the kind of judge I wanted for every single one of my clients, and that is the kind of judge that I would commit to be.”

And when confronted by a handful of senators at her confirmation hearing, she responded with the brilliance and calmness she is known for—a temperament that will make her the kind of fair and impartial federal judge that our judiciary deserves.

Rikelman graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School and went on to clerk for Judge Morton Greenberg, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit who was appointed by President Reagan, and Justice Dana Fabe, who had just become the first woman appointed to the Alaska Supreme Court. In addition to her background in public interest law, Rikelman has worked for several law firms and served as in-house counsel for NBC Universal. The breadth of Rikelman’s career and the range of clients she’s represented have allowed her to analyze many areas of law that she would likely encounter as a federal judge.

Rikelman’s commitment to civil and human rights will be an asset to the federal bench. Her understanding of how the law impacts people’s lives and her extensive experience defending people’s rights will greatly benefit the First Circuit and all who come before the court.

As members of the Alaska Bar wrote in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee: “She understands that the law is not just abstract principles and rules, but at its core is about the individuals and organizations whose rights, liberties, property, and lives are at stake.”

Members of the Massachusetts Bar echoed these sentiments in another letter to the committee: “Ms. Rikelman’s career is uncommon in the degree that it has exposed her to a wide variety of legal issues, a broad scope of practice settings, and a multitude of different types of clients. Yet throughout her entire career, she has carried with her the values of rigorous legal analysis, meticulous preparation, and faithful advocacy.”

Rikelman’s varied professional experience is important—and so is the demographic diversity she would bring to the First Circuit. Public trust in the judiciary is bolstered when our courts better reflect the rich diversity of our country. Different lived experiences, especially from communities that have been excluded from serving on our courts, bring varied perspectives to our federal courts that are crucial to improving judicial decision-making.

Confirming Julie Rikelman will ensure we have a court that better reflects and represents the experiences of all people in America—and it will move us closer to ensuring equal justice for all. We urge the Senate to confirm her to the U.S Court of Appeals for the First Circuit without delay.

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

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The Leadership Conference is a 501(c)(4) organization that engages in legislative advocacy. It was founded in 1950 and has coordinated national lobbying efforts on behalf of every major civil rights law since 1957.