WASHINGTON — Democrats on Wednesday began advancing President Biden’s first judicial nominees through the Senate Judiciary Committee, taking a significant step to counter the influence President Donald J. Trump had in steering the federal courts to the right.
In a marked and intentional contrast to Mr. Trump’s picks, the two circuit court nominees and three district court candidates considered on Wednesday were all people of color with backgrounds that differed substantially from nominees traditionally chosen by presidents of both parties, including an emphasis on serving as a public defender.
Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the chairman of the committee, noted that none of the 54 appeals court judges selected by Mr. Trump had been African-American. Mr. Biden’s nominees would orient the courts back to “even-handedness, fair-mindedness and competence” while improving racial and professional diversity, Mr. Durbin said.
“We need it on the federal courts,” he said.
Most of the focus on Wednesday was on two nominees to federal appeals courts — usually the last stop for major cases before the Supreme Court — Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, chosen for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and Candace Jackson-Akiwumi for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago. Both are Black. Judge Jackson, currently a district court judge in Washington, is considered a potential future Supreme Court nominee by Democrats, and Ms. Jackson-Akiwumi would be the only Black judge on the Seventh Circuit.
Both have experience as federal public defenders representing criminal defendants, and Ms. Jackson-Akiwumi spent a decade in Chicago representing hundreds of people who could not afford their own lawyers. Presidents have often shied away from nominating public defenders — and others have faced Senate resistance — because of their client lists, instead favoring candidates with prosecutorial backgrounds for judgeships.
Democrats and progressive activists say that the absence of defense expertise among judges is detrimental to the courts and that public defenders should not be penalized for providing representation guaranteed by the courts.
“We have to differentiate that, or we will never have anybody in these jobs who has been an advocate for clients,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota.
But Republicans highlighted their defense experience to try to tarnish Mr. Biden’s nominees. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, noted that Judge Jackson had represented an accused terrorist held at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, though she noted that she had been assigned to the case and could not remember the defendant’s name.
Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, pressed Ms. Jackson-Akiwumi about her defense of an accused weapons trafficker who had bought guns in Indiana and then sold them illegally in the Chicago area. She noted repeatedly that she was simply providing the representation to which the defendants were entitled under the federal system.
“I stand by my commitment and the oath that I took as an attorney, which is to represent zealously everyone who requires federal representation in our federal courts,” Ms. Jackson-Akiwumi said.
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Judge Jackson said she believed that defense experience could be an advantage and “help not only the judge himself or herself in considering the facts and circumstances in the case, but also help the system over all in terms of their interaction with defendants.”
Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, pointed to the emphasis Democrats were placing on diversity and asked the nominees what role their race would play in the way they conducted themselves as judges. Both said that they did not believe that race would influence how they would interpret the law, but that their different life experiences could be…