Biden’s 2023 Judicial Appointees Mark New Era for Diversity in Courts

The Biden administration’s 2023 judicial appointments were some of the most diverse in a presidential history—marking a historic win for representation in the courts.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson at an event celebrating the confirmation of Jackson as the first Black woman on the Supreme Court on April 8, 2022, at the White House South Lawn. (Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

It wasn’t always obvious in the moment, but one month into the new year, it’s clearer than ever how extraordinary the Biden administration and Senate allies’ 2023 accomplishments were when it comes to the judiciary. Democrats, led by Majority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Senator Dick Durbin (Ill.), confirmed 166 judges by 2023’s end—about two-thirds of whom are women.

Alliance for Justice’s new report, “Courting Change: 2023 Momentum for Movement Law,” breaks down Biden’s nominations and confirmations in terms of both professional and demographic diversity. In 2023 alone, the administration appointed eight public defenders, 13 civil rights lawyers, two labor lawyers and seven plaintiff-side lawyers. That means that from the time Biden took office through the end of last year, the administration appointed a total of 37 public defenders, 25 civil rights lawyers, three labor lawyers, and 17 plaintiff-side lawyers to the federal bench.

Black History Month is also a good time to recognize the Biden administration’s outstanding record in appointing Black jurists. As of Feb. 1, the Biden administration had appointed 56 Black judges to the federal judiciary. That’s more than any other president in American history in a single term and almost as many as President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama appointed over two terms—just 62 Black judges each.

Only two years ago, Pew observed that only 70 of the 3,843 people confirmed as federal judges in the United States were Black women—fewer than 2 percent. 

By contrast, a majority of the 56 Black judges who joined the federal judiciary between 2021 and today—35!—are women, including the Supreme Court’s first Black woman justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson. In addition, 13 of the 14 circuit court judges nominated by Biden and confirmed by the Senate are Black women. Among these appointees are the first Black women to sit as judges on the Courts of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, Third Circuit, Fifth Circuit and 11th Circuit.

The momentum continues in 2024. 

Just two months into the year, we’re off to a strong start when it comes to diversifying the bench.

  • Two of the 35 Black women appointed to the federal bench under Biden, Judges Jacquelyn Austin and Cristal Brisco, have been confirmed since Jan. 1.
  • Austin is now the only Black woman sitting on the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, a state where more than a quarter of residents identify as African-American or Black.
  • Brisco, meanwhile, is not just the only Black woman sitting on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana but also the first person of color ever to sit on that court.

Within the administration’s record on diversity lies one particularly significant avenue of progress: addressing the staggering number of district courts that have still never had a non-white judge. Nominees Jasmine H. Yoon and Melissa DuBose would each be the first person of color appointed to their respective federal district courts, the Western District of Virginia and the District of Rhode Island. DuBose would also be the first LGBTQ+ judge on that court.

The nominees announced in 2023 who’ve accompanied us into 2024, awaiting action before the Senate Judiciary Committee or a vote by the Senate, include standouts such as Maryland’s Nicole Berner and Adeel Mangi of New Jersey. Berner has led critical reproductive rights advocacy work as well as serving as labor union SEIU’s general counsel. She would be one of just a handful of federal judges with prior experience in either realm and the first LGBTQ+ judge on the Fourth Circuit. Mangi, meanwhile, would be the first Muslim to sit on any federal appellate court in the United States upon confirmation to the Third Circuit. 

Biden’s 2024 judicial nominees likewise already include attorneys whose very nominations are historic. Consider Amir Ali, newly nominated to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Ali is a leading civil rights advocate nationally who has tried and won three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He would be the first Arab American judge to sit on that court.

Despite all this progress, important work remains to be done to fill every open vacancy in our federal courts with diverse movement lawyers. Right now, 59 vacancies are without nominees. If the Senate and the Biden administration prioritize judicial nominations and confirmations, voting on those nominees already announced and naming successors for current and anticipated vacancies, they can catch up to the prior administration, which confirmed 234 Article III (lifetime) judges. Doing so is imperative to balancing our courts and repairing public confidence in the federal judicial branch.

Read AFJ’s full 2023 report: “Courting Change: 2023 Momentum for Movement Law.

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Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza is the senior Aron justice counsel at Alliance for Justice.