When asked, every Democratic presidential candidate says the courts are important and, if elected, they plan to appoint judges who respect the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent.
However, none of the candidates mention specific names they would consider, only models they would follow. Popular shout-outs include Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic woman to serve on the nation’s highest court. During the 2016 primary, some Republican candidates produced a list of conservative judges they’d consider.
But a handful of Democratic candidates do have a record that sheds more light on the type of nominees they might consider for the federal judiciary.
During their time in the Senate, Sens. Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren recommended a number of the judges who eventually made it to the federal bench during the Obama Administration and have since impacted the country.
For example, Warren recommended Allison Burroughs, who, in 2017, issued a restraining order on President Donald Trump’s travel ban on people from majority Muslim countries.
Burroughs was confirmed in December 2014 by voice vote. Before the federal bench, she worked at a Boston law firm for about nine years. Before that, she served as an assistant U.S. attorney for about 16 years, first in Pennsylvania, then in Massachusetts.
Warren has long stated her priorities to eliminate corruption at the federal level, and it stands to reason her judges would be strong supporters of regulation and anti-corruption.
In 2014, Warren said this about Burroughs: “Her years of distinguished public service as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in both Boston and Philadelphia, including several years in the Economic Crimes Unit in Boston, along with her time in private practice, allow Allison to bring a wealth of legal experience to the federal bench. I have every confidence that she will be an excellent judge.”
Judicial recommendations are typically sought from home-state senators — those who represent the state with the vacancy. When Warren recommended judges, they were going to fill seats in Massachusetts.
Generally, the Democratic senators recommended people with years of experience and a diversity of professional backgrounds. The judges were also diverse in race and gender.
In 2016, for example, Klobuchar recommended Wilhelmina “Mimi” Wright, who became a federal district court judge for the District of Minnesota by a vote of 58-36.
Before her confirmation, Wright was a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court, making her the first African American woman to serve in that role. Before that, she was an assistant U.S. attorney for Minnesota where she represented the government in economic fraud cases and cases about violent crime.
On Wright, Klobuchar said, “She is a dedicated public servant with a distinguished career spanning all levels of the state and federal legal system. I fought hard for her confirmation, and I have no doubt she will serve Minnesota well. While many judicial nominees are languishing in the Senate, she has made it through the confirmation gauntlet. That is a tribute to her and those who supported her.”
In the same vein of professional diversity, Warren recommended Leo Sorokin, who was officially nominated in 2013 and confirmed in 2014 with 91 yea votes and zero nos.
Sorokin served as an assistant federal public defender for about eight years before he became a magistrate judge for the Massachusetts district court where he was confirmed.
Warren credited his service as a public defender when he was officially nominated.
“His years of experience as a Magistrate Judge with the U.S. District Court and his long service as a public defender will improve the professional diversity of our courts,” Warren said at the time. “He is highly qualified to serve on the federal bench, and will be an outstanding District Court judge.”
Starting Line reached out to the Senate offices of Booker and Sanders, but didn’t receive responses.
Many organizations that watch the federal judiciary advocate for people who have backgrounds like this.
Marge Baker, executive vice president of People for the American Way, said some of the most notable nominees were those who required a lot of fight in the Senate.
“What we’re looking for in a judge is somebody who has an understanding that the law and constitution are designed to protect everyone, not just the powerful and the privileged,” Baker said. “So we looked at their nominees who the ultra-conservatives in Congress opposed and worked really hard not to get on the bench.”
The Hard Fights
Beyond individual recommendations, the senators also have records of voting for judges, three of whom Baker highlighted as hard-fought nominations.
Edward Chen, Cornelia Pillard and Pamela Harris continued the trend of professional and racial diversity.
Chen, confirmed in 2011, is the first Asian American to hold a district judge seat in the Northern District of California. He’s a first-generation American whose background includes working as a magistrate judge for the Northern District of California and serving as a staff attorney for ACLU Foundation of Northern California.
During that time, Chen worked with employment discrimination, racial discrimination and profiling, language-based and national origin discrimination. He also was on the legal team representing Fred Korematsu in the landmark case concerning Japanese internment camps during World War II.
Chen’s nomination sat in the Senate for two years and was eventually confirmed by a 56-42 vote along party lines. Only one Republican voted for his confirmation. Sens. Klobuchar, Sanders and Michael Bennet voted for him, the only three of the five who were in office at the time.
Pillard was confirmed in 2013 with a 51-44 vote and had no Republican support. Three Democrats voted against her, but Sens. Bennet, Booker, Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren all voted in favor.
Before her confirmation to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Pillard was a professor at Georgetown Law, teaching constitutional law and civil procedure. She also worked at NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and she appeared before the Supreme Court a number of times, arguing for issues like disability rights, patent law and whistleblower protection.
Harris, now a judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, also had a difficult confirmation. No Republicans voted for her and two Democrats voted against, but all five of the senators voted to confirm in 2014, making the vote count 50-43.
During her career, Harris worked at the Department of Justice. She was also a professor at a Pennsylvania law school. At the time of her nomination, Obama spotlighted her character as one reason he was proud to nominate her to the Circuit Court.
“Throughout her career, Pamela Harris has shown unwavering integrity and an outstanding commitment to public service,” Obama said at the time.
Even if the presidential candidates decline to name potential nominees, their past recommendations provide insight into the type of experience and background they might seek if one of them become president.
“And then I think the next question is how much they prioritize these fights,” Baker said. “The way to stop the bleeding and start repairing some of the damage Trump has done to the courts is to make this a super high top priority.”
She said there’s still hope to regain some of the ground lost during the Trump Administration, but Democrats have to commit to quality nominees who prioritize the American people in their decision-making.
“I think that’s what we’re going to want to hear more from the candidates, is that they’re really going to elevate this in importance,” Baker said.
By Nikoel Hytrek