Iowa senators confirm first Biden judges, set to oppose others

U.S. Senators Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley were part of bipartisan majorities that confirmed President Joe Biden's first three judicial nominees this week. But the senators are likely to oppose Biden's picks for judgeships higher than the District Court level.

Ernst and Grassley were among the seventeen Republicans who joined Democrats to confirm Julien Xavier Neals for the U.S. District Court of New Jersey on June 8, and among 22 Republicans who supported Regina Rodriguez for the U.S. District Court of Colorado the same day. On June 10, they were part of the 81 to 16 majority that confirmed Zahid Quraishi for another District Court judgeship in New Jersey.

Neither issued a statement about the confirmation votes, but as ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, Grassley commented last month that the candidates were well qualified.

Neals waited six years for this moment. President Barack Obama nominated him in February 2015, shortly after Republicans took control of the Senate. As Judiciary Committee chair during the last two years of Obama's presidency, Grassley slow-walked many judicial nominations and presided over few confirmations by historical standards. Neals was voted out of committee in November 2015, on the same day as two candidates for Iowa vacancies: Leonard Strand (nominated in July of that year) and Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger (nominated in September).

With support from Iowa's GOP senators, Strand and Ebinger received floor votes in February 2016. Both were unanimously confirmed. But Senate leaders never brought Neals' nomination to the floor. (Grassley claimed last month that he had supported Neals as one of Obama's nominees.) Oddly, none of the more than 200 judicial vacancies President Donald Trump filled were in New Jersey. Biden has already nominated four candidates for judgeships in that state.


When the Senate Judiciary Committee considered the first batch of Biden judicial nominees in May, Grassley explained why he was opposing Ketanji Brown Jackson to serve on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and Candace Jackson-Akiwumi to serve on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Democrats spent the last four years systematically voting against extremely well credentialed nominees who were diverse professionally, geographically, religiously, and ethnically because those nominees weren’t committed to a living constitution. I think Republicans should adhere to a similar standard.

We need to hold Democrat circuit nominees to a high standard of constitutionalism, regardless of how impressive their credentials are or how compelling their personal stories may be. Credentials and background aren’t enough, as Democrats showed us. Unless a circuit nominee can show me that she or he’s affirmatively committed to the Constitution as originally understood, I don’t think that he or she should be confirmed. It’s only fair.

As to the nominees today, I’ll be voting against the two circuit nominees and for the three district nominees. Briefly, both Judge Jackson and Ms. Jackson-Akiwumi have impressive backgrounds, but neither has satisfied me that she will adhere to the Constitution as originally understood.

In the case of Judge Jackson this is particularly troubling because in 2013 she told our late colleague, Dr. Coburn, that she affirmatively did not believe in a “living constitution.” She won’t say that anymore, though, and she doesn’t have a particularly good reason why not.

With Ms. Jackson-Akiwumi a review of her record before the Committee gives me serious concerns about her commitment to applying Seventh Circuit and Supreme Court precedent on the Second Amendment. Her views on Roe v. Wade are also concerning as were other aspects of her time as a federal defender. Amusingly, Ms. Jackson-Akiwumi refused to tell me whether or not climate change is real. I wonder if that will cost her any votes among my Democrat friends. We were told that answer was a serious problem for Amy Coney Barrett, after all.

Grassley found Jackson-Akiwumi's answer to his climate change question amusing. I find it amusing that the senator expects two Black women to be "affirmatively committed to the Constitution as originally understood." Our country's founding document declared that enslaved Black people were to be counted as three-fifths of the number of white residents of their state.

Jackson is widely seen as a possible future U.S. Supreme Court nominee. Jackson-Akiwumi would be "only the second Black woman ever on the Seventh Circuit and will be the only person of color currently on the Chicago appeals court," Lynn Sweet noted in a recent Chicago Sun-Times column.

Ernst no longer serves on the Judiciary Committee and hasn't commented publicly on pending nominees for judgeships, to my knowledge. But Iowa's junior senator voted against more of Biden's cabinet-level nominations than Grassley did, so I will be surprised if she confirms any judicial nominee Grassley opposes.

UPDATE: The Senate confirmed Ketanji Brown Jackson on June 14 by 53 votes to 44. As expected, Grassley and Ernst voted no. The three Republicans who supported Jackson were Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski.

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