Senate Confirms First Biden Judges, Beginning Push to Rebalance Courts

WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed President Biden’s first two judicial nominees on Tuesday with modest Republican support, quietly touching off a liberal sprint to fill scores of federal vacancies, aimed at rebalancing the ideological makeup of the courts and injecting new diversity after the Trump era.

In a lopsided 66-to-33 vote, the chamber approved Julien Xavier Neals to serve as a district court judge in New Jersey, where a spate of vacancies has contributed to a significant backlog of cases.

A few hours later, senators voted 72 to 28 to confirm Regina Rodriguez as the first Asian American judge to serve on the Federal District Court bench in Colorado.

“This is the first, certainly not the last — not even close,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, boasted between the votes. “We’re going to be able to restore a lot of balance to the courts because there are a lot of vacancies we are going to fill.”

Democrats plan to move as soon as this week to confirm Mr. Biden’s first appeals court pick, Ketanji Brown Jackson, to serve on the powerful District of Columbia Circuit. They have roughly a dozen other nominees already winding their way through the approval process, with more than 100 vacancies expected to be open on the federal bench in the coming months.

But Democrats are starting from a deep hole. When they controlled the Senate, Republicans led by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky used their majority to help President Donald J. Trump confirm more than 220 federal judges over four years, including more than 50 to influential appeals court posts and three Supreme Court justices. Together, they are already putting a deep conservative stamp on the law.

To push back, Democrats are borrowing liberally from Mr. McConnell’s playbook during the Trump years, when he focused intensively on confirming conservatives to lifetime terms on the federal courts. The White House moved swiftly to begin naming nominees for many of the most important posts this spring, far earlier than the historic norm, and Mr. Biden’s liberal allies on Capitol Hill have made their approval a top priority of an evenly split Senate.

Both nominees confirmed on Tuesday also underscored the significance of the shifting power. Mr. Neals and Ms. Rodriguez were first nominated by President Barack Obama near the end of his second term, but their nominations were among the dozens blocked by Mr. McConnell when he was the majority leader as part of his successful effort to hold open crucial vacancies in case a Republican won the presidency in 2016.

The key difference in approach has been whom Mr. Biden is nominating. Democrats were highly critical of Mr. Trump and his party for advancing a glut of white men who were staunch ideological conservatives. Mr. Biden, on the other hand, has emphasized diversity in race, gender and background, including by selecting public defenders often passed over for federal judgeships in favor of prosecutors.

As Democrats wait to see whether Justice Stephen G. Breyer will retire at the end of the Supreme Court’s current term, Mr. Biden has also pledged to nominate the first African American woman to the nation’s highest court. And this week, Mr. Schumer formally recommended that the White House nominate two voting rights experts — Myrna Pérez of the Brennan Center for Justice and Dale Ho of the American Civil Liberties Union — to key judgeships in his home state.

“The face of justice is often as important as the fact of justice,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “And if people appearing before our courts feel that there is at least a chance for success based on the background and experience of a judge, I think it’s a positive thing.”

Tuesday’s nominees fit the mold. Mr. Neals is Black and currently serves as the acting Bergen County administrator and county counsel. Ms. Rodriguez, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice, is the daughter of a Latino father and a mother of Japanese ancestry.

Neither nominee inspired ardent opposition from Republicans, though some conservative senators have put up stiffer opposition to Judge Jackson and some of Mr. Biden’s other appeals court nominees.

“I haven’t found fault with anybody except philosophy at the circuit level — so far,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. As the panel’s chairman, Mr. Grassley was integral to conservatives’ success on the courts, adopting hardball tactics that enraged Democrats.

He was joined in voting to confirm Mr. Biden’s nominees by Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, another leading Republican combatant of the judicial wars during Mr. Trump’s presidency. Mr. Graham said he believed in generally giving deference to presidents to name judges, no matter their political party.

“I expect Democrats to pick people I wouldn’t pick,” he said. “I don’t have anybody I’ve thrown up with yet; that’s sort of my test.”

Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, said he had been fighting for the confirmation of Mr. Neals, 56, since 2015, when the Judiciary Committee approved the nomination by voice vote but Mr. McConnell refused to hold a vote of the full Senate. Mr. Booker said he tried without success to strike a deal with the White House under Mr. Trump.

The senator said Mr. Neals’s confirmation would help alleviate what the Judicial Conference has deemed a “judicial emergency” in his state, based on a half-dozen district court vacancies.

“It’s not about personal satisfaction for me,” Mr. Booker said. “It’s about getting a great person on the bench.”

Ms. Rodriguez, 57, was first nominated by Mr. Obama in 2016. A former federal prosecutor in Colorado, she has worked in private practice for two decades.

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