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A gavel sits on a desk inside the Court of Appeals at the new Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center, which celebrated its official opening on Monday Jan. 14, 2013, in Denver.
A gavel sits on a desk inside the Court of Appeals at the new Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center, which celebrated its official opening on Monday Jan. 14, 2013, in Denver.Brennan Linsley / AP

Biden steps up with a bold set of new judicial nominees

The Trump-era campaign to move the courts to the right was as relentless as it was effective. Today, the opposite push begins in earnest.

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Just 10 days after President Joe Biden's inauguration, NBC News reported that the new White House team and Senate Democrats were "embarking on a mission to shape the courts after Republicans overhauled them in the last four years." The importance of the task is hard to overstate.

As we discussed two months ago, Republicans in the Trump era prioritized judicial nominees above almost every other consideration. The campaign was as relentless as it was effective: the former president managed to appoint about 230 judges to the federal courts -- many of them comically young, nearly all of them inexorably conservative. That's not as many as his recent two-term predecessors, but it was a striking tally for a failed one-term president who never won the popular vote.

The task of turning the tide began in earnest this morning.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced his first slate judicial nominees, including three Black women for important circuit court vacancies. The White House said his 11 nominees "reflect the full diversity of the American people — both in background and in professional experience."

Right off the bat, it's worth emphasizing the sheer volume of the group of nominees. As White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain noted, modern presidents haven't generally made much of an effort to put forward nominees for the federal bench this early in their terms. At the 100-day marks, for example, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton hadn't yet nominated anyone for the judiciary. Donald Trump, meanwhile, sent two judicial nominees in his first 100 days, while Back Obama had three.

Joe Biden has been in office for 70 days, and he's now sent 11 judicial nominees to the Senate for consideration. That's more than double the total for the last four presidents combined at this early stage in their respective terms, and it serves as a reminder that this White House is taking the matter seriously, as it should.

But more important is the list of nominees. To his credit, the new president has prioritized both qualifications and expanding the diversity of the federal bench. Nine of the 11 nominees, for example, are women.

The New York Times added that Biden's nominees include "three African-American women for appeals court vacancies and candidates who, if confirmed by the Senate, would be the first federal judge who is Muslim, the first Asian-American woman to serve on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Circuit and the first woman of color to serve as a federal judge in Maryland."

Perhaps the most notable nominee is Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, whom Biden has tapped for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit -- widely seen as the nation's second most powerful federal bench -- filling the vacancy created when Merrick Garland became the attorney general.

As NBC News' report this morning added, Jackson "is widely seen as a future Supreme Court prospect, after the president promised to choose a Black woman if a seat becomes vacant while he's in office.... She has served on the U.S. District Court in Washington since 2013, when she was confirmed by the Senate without controversy on a voice vote, and was previously vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

As of this morning, there are 68 vacancies on the federal bench, a number that is scheduled to reach 94 later this year, as sitting jurists retire and take senior status. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, has said filling every vacancy by the end of 2022 is his party's "very prudent goal."

That's an ambitious target, which will require a concerted effort on the part of Democratic leaders. The White House took a big step in the right direction this morning.

Postscript: MSNBC's Chris Hayes noted via Twitter last week, "Just a reminder that the Democrats are one random, awful sudden illness or death away from losing their majority and [Supreme Court Justice Stephen] Breyer should probably consider that."

I mention Chris' tweet because I think about the underlying point every day.