Examining President Biden’s pledge to diversify the federal judiciary

It is another big week in the U.S. Senate with a major push by President Biden to reshape American courts. As a candidate he pledged to diversify the federal bench and his decision to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court has dominated recent headlines. NewsHour's Lisa Desjardins joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is a big week in the U.S. Senate for another major push by President Biden, this time to reshape American courts. As a candidate, Mr. Biden pledged to diversify the federal bench. His decision to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court has dominated recent headlines, but the president also is trying to change the face of the federal court system.

    For more, I'm joined by our congressional correspondent, Lisa Desjardins.

    So, Lisa, hello. We know the Democrats on Capitol Hill have a very full agenda already, but, as you have been — and you have been reporting a lot about it.

    But tell us about how big a priority this desire to change the courts is.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is a very high priority for Democrats and, for them, a bright spot in what has been a difficult last two months.

    How high of a priority? The only thing the U.S. Senate is doing this week is voting on nominations. Now, some of that is because Democrats' agenda, where that sits, but a lot of that is because this is what they feel is important.

    I want to talk to you about how quickly President Biden and Democrats have been moving through to get judicial nominees confirmed. Look at these numbers. President Biden in his first year in office was able to get 42 federal judges confirmed. Compare that with former President Trump, in his first year, 23.

    That Biden number, by the way, is a record for the last 60 years. We know that President Trump went on to confirm many, many federal judges. There's three more years left for President Biden, but out of the gates, that's a big number. And that is part of what's happening this week.

    I want to look at four photos of some of his nominees. Three of those, the three on the right, were just confirmed yesterday to the district court in Ohio, the other one, Leonard Stark, could be confirmed by the end of the week for the circuit court. And you notice something else about those photos, Judy? That is a diverse group of judges.

    And that is what the president is submitting to the Senate. And those are the kinds of judges that are getting confirmed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, those are four.

    Give us the larger picture of what the Biden nominees look like, compared to previous slates of judges.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    To help people understand this universe, there are about 800 federal judges in this country. They all have a lifetime appointment to the court. That is an incredibly important group of theme in this country.

    So let's look back. And I want to show you, using some excellent graphics from The Washington Post, over what the different slates of nominees look like. Here are the slates of nominees from President Obama in two terms, President Trump in one.

    Now, at the bottom, the bottom half there, those are nominees who were white nominees. It appears in purple on your screen. Those are the bottom numbers. You can see those are the largest ones. The top half there, those are minority nominees.

    And then, if you look in the upper — there you go. There's the white nominees there at the bottom, minorities at the top. If you look at the upper left, those are minority women. That is the smallest group for both Presidents Obama and Trump.

    Now let's look at what Biden has been nominating, the kinds of judges he's nominated. Look at that. It's flipped, minority women the single largest category by quite a lot. And you can also see that, rather than white nominees being the vast majority, two-thirds to 80 percent, it's gone the other way. Now, under President Biden so far, white federal nominees are about a third of what we see being proposed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lisa, you are talking to people on Capitol Hill every day. What has been the reaction to all this?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is what we were just hearing from William in the last segment, the playing field. How do you even it?

    And some Republicans — they are divided — believe that this is a form of affirmative action that they say is reverse discrimination.

    I'm going to start with some sound bites from two of those senators, Ted Cruz of Texas and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, specifically talking to the idea that President Biden would like a Black female as his next Supreme Court justice.

  • Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX):

    The fact that he's willing to make the promise at the outset that it must be a Black woman, I got to say, that's offensive.

  • Man:

    Right.

  • Sen. Ted Cruz:

    Black women are, what, 6 percent of the U.S. population?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Sen. Ted Cruz:

    He's saying to 94 percent of Americans, I don't give a damn about you. You are ineligible.

  • Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS):

    The irony is that the Supreme Court is at the very same time hearing cases about this sort of affirmative racial discrimination…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Man:

    Yes.

  • Sen. Roger Wicker:

    … and while adding someone who is the beneficiary of this sort of quota.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But, of course, this is not new.

    In fact, I want to pull up a quote by former President Reagan when he was a candidate for the presidency in 1980, when he promised himself: "It is time for a woman to sit among our highest jurists."

    And, of course, he appointed Sandra Day O'Connor.

    On the other side of this debate, there are those who say diversity isn't just something that's visual; it is something that makes a difference.

    And I want to play some sound from an interview we did today with Maya Sen — she is with Harvard's Kennedy School of Government — about the value of diversity on our courts.

  • Maya Sen, Harvard University:

    Important for the federal court system is that there are a lot of studying — studies showing that judges of different backgrounds decide cases differently.

    So, to give you an example of this, there are a number of studies that have shown that white and Black judges sometimes sentence criminal defendants differently, and, in particular, that white judges tend to be harsher than Black judges, especially against Black defendants.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is a lot of information, but to sum this up, Judy, President Biden is moving more quickly, in a historic way, and by far with the most diverse slate of federal judges to occupy the American bench in history.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Lisa, I want to ask you about President Biden making his decision in coming weeks on who he's going to pick for the Supreme Court.

    Tonight, he was meeting with the Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer. I know you weren't in the meeting, but what can you tell us about it?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    If they want to invite me, I'd love to go.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We haven't heard anything yet from that meeting.

    But I will tell you some important news I can tell you regarding Senator Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico. As we reported, he suffered a stroke. He is not going to be in the Senate. His vote is critical to the 50/50 Senate. His staff tells me that he is expected to return within four to six weeks.

    That is good news for Democrats, who may need his vote in that Supreme Court fight. And I think we should watch that four-to-six-week timeline as a potential timeline for when we will see a Supreme Court nominee making it to the Senate floor, one month to two months.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we certainly wish him well. We know a lot of the focus is on the Supreme Court, but everyone wishing him well, in terms of his health, too.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa Desjardins reporting on it all.

    Thank you, Lisa.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You're welcome.

Listen to this Segment