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As President Biden considers who he will choose to replace Justice Stephen Breyer on the Supreme Court, we take a deep dive into some of the potential nominees reportedly on the short list. A bipartisan stamp of approval makes a South Carolina federal judge one of the top contenders. Lisa Desjardins starts our series by answering the question, “who is J. Michelle Childs?”
As President Biden considers his pick to replace Justice Breyer on the Supreme Court, we take a deep dive into some of the potential nominees reportedly on the short list.
What looks like a bipartisan stamp of approval makes a South Carolina federal judge one of the top contenders.
Lisa Desjardins starts our series by answering the question, who is J. Michelle Childs?
On top of her list of firsts and standout accomplishments, South Carolina's Michelle Childs uniquely has this displayed at her 2010 federal bench confirmation hearing, open bipartisan support.
Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC):
Just Childs has demonstrated the dedication to the job and a work ethic unmatched by other judges.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC):
And she will do a great job for the people of south Carolina.
A nod Republican senator Lindsey Graham pointedly repeated last month.
Sen. Lindsey Graham
Born in Detroit, Childs moved to South Carolina after the death of her father, who was a police officer. She excelled in high school, a lengthy yearbook entry reflecting all her accolades, the National Honor Society, even three years of perfect attendance.
Luther Battiste III, Founder, Johnson, Toal & Battiste: She's just been a person who has a work ethic and a drive that is unmatched.
Attorney and former city councilman Luther Battiste has known Childs since she was a student, when she won full scholarships to the University of South Florida for undergrad and then the University of South Carolina Law School.
Luther Battiste III:
She's different from many candidates, who traditionally have an Ivy League background.
From there, Childs joined a private law firm.
Leighton Lord, Chairman, Nexsen Pruet:
She's unflappable. You can't get her worked up
Leighton Lord worked with Childs at the Nexsen Pruet law firm in Columbia, South Carolina, where she was promoted to partner.
I didn't grow up in the South. But I thought it was a pretty big deal. But it was just — she just made partner, like everybody else.
In this 2020 virtual forum, Childs said she didn't realize what she'd done.
Judge J. Michelle Childs , South Carolina Federal District Court: At the time I became partner, I did not know I was the first Black female in the state of South Carolina that had made partner in a major law firm.
Then, something else unusual. Childs left the firm to take high-ranking jobs at the state Department of Labor and then the Workers' Compensation Commission. In 2006, she became a state judge, which requires election by the state legislature.
For the average person, that was an arduous, distasteful process. For Judge Childs, it was the easiest thing in the world. She is such a people person.
Childs handled some high-profile cases, including a 2007 armored car heist. She made headlines for sentencing some of the young men involved to 25 years in prison.
In 2010, she and a family of support came to Washington.
Judge J. Michelle Childs:
I'd like to acknowledge my family.
And the Senate unanimously confirmed her as a federal judge.
Is there objection? Without objection, so ordered.
From her bench came a few big decisions. In 2014, she ruled in favor of two women seeking to have their marriage recognized, declaring South Carolina's refusal a violation of constitutional rights. That was the year before the Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriages.
And amid the 2020 election and the coronavirus, Childs ruled in favor of easier voter access to absentee ballots, and against a Republican witness requirement. Childs says, what she wants is to be fair.
I want people to feel like, when they come before me, in that they don't feel they have been prejudged. Of course, I want to be well-prepared, but I want them to feel they have had the opportunity to president their advocacy to me.
Judea Davis, Former Law Clerk for J. Michelle Childs: For her, the law is living, and it's something that is going to affect people's rights, going to affect their lives.
Judea Davis clerked for Childs from 2018 to 2019. We talked to her about some doubts on the left, including this story from The American Prospect, charging that Childs is too punitive in sentencing, or this from "The Young Turks," who fear she's too close to big business.
She has a history of representing employers over the best interests of employees.
Judea Davis says those concerns are unfounded.
She didn't ever weigh one side more than the other. It was, here are the impacts of this person's decisions, the impacts both on them and their family, and the impacts on the victim and their family, and the impacts on the community generally.
Davis is thinking of the Supreme Court and her mentor.
On a more personal level, she's Black female. She's a mother, all of which inspires me. There's obviously a lot of debate about how women can perform in the work force, that they can do it at a high level.
And I think she's done that while raising a family and being a wife, being a mother. And so those two aspects are super inspiring to me.
Childs also likes to engage on diversity, as she did with humor when giving feedback during a Duke Law School competition.
One little critique about you, one time, I asked you a question, and you said, "Yes, sir."
I just want you to know there are some women on the bench.
That is the final pitch for supporters of Michelle Childs, that she would reshape the bench the most.
South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn.
Rep. James Clyburn:
I just think that it is time for us to diversify the court, not just as it relates to gender, but as it relates to color as well, and as it relates to backgrounds and experiences.
In any case, Judge Childs should be ready for a promotion. She was nominated to the Court of Appeals last year. Confirmation is expected, if she is not nominated to the Supreme Court instead.
And Lisa Desjardins joins us now.
So, Lisa, you have done some more reporting today on Judge Childs' work history. What did you learn?
You know, Judge Childs is unique in this aspect, that she is receiving open criticism from some on the left, some progressives, as we reported, questioning her time working as a private attorney for business clients, and also when she was deputy director of the state's Labor Department.
I spoke today to the woman who headed the Labor Department at the time, Rita McKinney. And she told me that, in her experience, over two years with Childs, that Childs was relentlessly open-minded to every case she heard, and, in fact, that workplace situations improved under Childs from the areas that she managed during that time.
We did our research. And, in fact, it is true that, in the two years that Childs was in that job, that the number of workplace injuries and diseases reported did go down for workers in South Carolina. And, in fact, also, Childs did do some groundbreaking work reaching out to migrant workers with a task force for non-English speakers and offering housing, those kinds of things.
Again, those who support her say she is open-minded, she sees both sides. The question here is, what is balance? Progressive say they want someone who leans more clearly left. Judge Childs an example of someone who has clearly ruled on each case on its own, say her supporters.
Lisa Desjardins with some really important information on this potential nominee.
Lisa, thank you.
And, next week, we are going to be learning more about two other potential nominees who could be — who may be on the president's short list.
Watch the Full Episode
Lisa Desjardins is a correspondent for PBS NewsHour, where she covers news from the U.S. Capitol while also traveling across the country to report on how decisions in Washington affect people where they live and work.
Ebony Joseph is a producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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