Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court

On February 15, 2022, President Joe Biden announced his intent to nominate D.C. Circuit Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to be an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Jackson was born in Washington D.C., and raised in Miami, Florida. Her parents attended segregated schools in the South and both attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Judge Jackson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, then attended Harvard Law School, where she graduated cum laude and was an editor on the Harvard Law Review. After law school, Judge Jackson served as a law clerk at all three levels of the federal Judiciary, culminating in a clerkship with Justice Stephen Breyer—the very seat she has been nominated to fill. She served as a federal public defender from 2005 to 2007, representing defendants on appeal who did not have the means to afford a lawyer. Prior to serving as a judge, Judge Jackson, like Justice Breyer before her, worked on the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Judge Jackson served first as Assistant Special Counsel and then Senate-confirmed Commissioner and Vice Chair, where she focused on reducing sentencing disparities and ensuring that federal sentences were just and proportionate. 

Ketanji Brown Jackson is a historic selection. She would be the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court, she would be just the sixth woman and fourth person of color on the Supreme Court. While currently 8 out of the 9 justices on the Supreme Court have been Circuit Court Judges, if confirmed, Judge Jackson would be just the second current justice alongside Justice Sotomayor with experience as a district court judge. Notably, Judge Jackson would also be the very first justice ever to have served as a public defender. 

In this past year she was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit Court by a bipartisan vote of 53-44. Upon taking office, President Biden promised to ensure the federal bench reflected the diversity of the American people—both in terms of demographic and professional backgrounds. During Biden’s first year, he nominated the most demographically diverse set of judicial candidates in history and appointed an unprecedented number of former public defenders. If confirmed, Judge Jackson would continue this trajectory at the  Supreme Court level.

Judicial Appointments in 2021

Between 2016 and 2020 there were a total of  234 federal judges confirmed by the United States Senate to serve—including three Supreme Court Justices. President Trump’s appointees were 84% white, 76% male, and a majority were either former prosecutors or corporate lawyers—and each will serve a lifetime appointment. When President Biden took office last year, there were the fewest number of judicial vacancies for a new president since 1989. However, since then, many judges have retired, or taken “senior status,” (a form of semi-retirement) so there are still many vacancies that the Biden administration is set to fill over the coming years. 

Clearly cognizant of the enormous stakes and the difficulty of the task at hand, the Biden administration has attempted to move quickly,in part by foregoing certain structural processes in the interest of efficiency. For example, the Biden Administration decided to not restore the ABA’s role in vetting potential judges before the President announces nominations. This is consistent with the previous administration, but differs from the Obama administration and other prior administrations. In addition, the Senate has continued to  forego the “blue slip” tradition which was abandoned in 2016. The blue slip process required both senators from a state where a judge would sit to approve of the judicial nomination. For example, from 2009–2016, 18 of President Obama’s nominees were denied a hearing due to this tradition. However, as of September, all of President Biden’s judicial nominees have been in states with no Republican senators, or no senators at all (D.C.). President Biden has not, and is not expected to, nominate judges to the Eighth Circuit or the District Court for Nebraska. Trump confirmed 3 judges on the Eighth Circuit, one judge on the U.S. District Court for Nebraska, and there are currently no vacancies. 

Upon taking office, President Biden promised to ensure the federal bench reflected the diversity of the American people—both in terms of demographic and professional backgrounds. As of September 23rd, the Senate has confirmed 14 federal judges, 11 of which are women; five for the United States courts of appeals, and nine judges for district courts. Moreover, the nominees include some historical firsts: the first openly LGBT woman to serve on any federal circuit court; the first openly LGBT federal judge in Colorado; the first AAPI woman to ever serve on the U.S. District Court of D.C.; the first woman of color to serve as a federal judge for the District of Maryland; a woman who would be the first federal judge of South Asian descent in Michigan; a labor lawyer and former union organizer who would be the first AAPI judge from Oregon on the Ninth Circuit; the first Hispanic judge on the Court of Federal Claims; the first Korean-American woman to serve as a federal appellate judge; the first Black woman to serve on the Ninth Circuit from California; the first Muslim American federal judge; the only judge with experience as a federal defender serving on the Tenth Circuit; the first Native American federal judge in Washington state; the first AAPI man on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington; the first AAPI woman judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California; the first Hispanic district court judge in Ohio; the first AAPI judge on the D.C. Court of Appeals; and many more.  

There are currently 37 nominations awaiting Senate action: 8 for the courts of appeals, and 29 for federal district courts. There are currently 112 federal judicial vacancies, 80 of which are current.

Judge Smith Camp Takes Senior Status

Nebraska’s chief district judge, Laurie Smith Camp, took on senior status effective December 1, 2018. The date also marked the end of her seven-year term as chief judge. Smith Camp worked for the federal court for 16 years after being nominated by President George W. Bush in 2001. Although she took on senior status, Smith announced she will maintain a full caseload pending the confirmation of her successor.

Nebraska has three federal district judgeships- two in Omaha, and one in Lincoln. Smith Camp’s vacancy will be filled by presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. President Trump’s nomination will rely heavily on the recommendations of Nebraska Senator Sasse and Fisher.

On December 13th Sens. Ben Sasse and Deb Fischer announced the judicial process for the vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska. Back in November, Sen Sasse said “In the coming weeks, as we look to fill her seat, we’ll be looking for men and women of integrity who are also committed to the Constitution and the rule of law.”

Click here or here to read more about the Judge Smith Camp’s pending vacancy.

ABA rates Omaha Attorney Steve Grasz as ‘not qualified’ for 8th Circuit Court of Appeals & the Senate Judiciary Panel Splits Along Party Lines Over the Nomination

Steve Grasz
Steve Grasz

The American Bar Association has decided that Steve Grasz, the Omaha attorney, is “not qualified” for a seat on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  This rating reflected, with one abstention, a unanimous vote by the standing committee from the ABA that reviews judicial nominations.

This is a notable decision because only two judicial nominees have ever received unanimous “not qualified” ratings since 1989, stated Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who focuses on this federal judicial selection process.  He also added that this was a “very rare” decision. Tobias points out that earlier this year, the bar association gave Neil Gorsuch a unanimous rating of “well qualified” for a seat on the Supreme Court.

Tobias said that the ABA, when determining their ratings, looks at a variety of factors, such as experience, intelligence, independence, diligence, ethics and temperament.  They do not explain their ratings when they initially release them, but sometimes will testify about them. The ABA will testify on their rating of Mr. Grasz on November 15th in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Both Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse, two of Nebraska’s Republican senators, recommended him for the 8th Circuit seat.  When President Donald Trump followed their recommendation and nominated him, the two senators praised the president.

In response to the ABA rating, Sen Sasse issued the following statement:

“It’s sad that the ABA would contort their ratings process to try to tarnish Steve’s professional reputation in order to drive a political agenda,” Sasse said. “In more than a decade as Chief Deputy Attorney General, whether he was litigating cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington or the Nebraska Supreme Court in Lincoln, Republicans and Democrats alike knew that Steve represented Nebraska with integrity and professionalism.”

After reviewing Steve Grasz’s nomination on Wednesday, Senate Judiciary Committee members are split along party lines. The committee is not expected to vote on the nomination before November 15th, however Mr. Grasz will need a majority confirmation from the full Senate.

Out of the 45 judicial candidates that President Trump has nominated, 43 have been deemed qualified, or well-qualified, by the ABA.

You can read more about the hearings from the Lincoln Journal Star:

Omaha World Herald:

Judicial Nominations Update

Steve Grasz
Steve Grasz

In August, Steve Grasz was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeal for the 8th Circuit by President Trump. Recommended by both Sasse and Fischer, Grasz served as Nebraska’s deputy attorney general from 1991-2002. Grasz also served as legal counsel for Gov. Ricketts, general counsel for the Nebraska Republican Party, and legal counsel for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty. Ricketts, Sasse, and Fischer have all praised his experience, credentials, and integrity.

In addition, four of the most recent judicial nominees put forward by the Trump administration have cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, but two of these nominations were closely contested. John Bush, nominated to the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals, and Damien Schiff, nominated to the US Court of Federal Claims, both faced tough questions about blog posts they made. Bush made posts claiming that President Obama was born in Kenya and calling slavery and abortion the two greatest tragedies in our country. Schiff called Justice Kennedy a “judicial prostitute.”  Both passed through the committee with narrow 11-9 margins.

Steve Grasz will have a hearing before the judiciary committee in the U.S. Senate this week on November 1st.

Ending Mass Incarceration for Immigrant Families

A recent federal court ruling could have a big impact on the future of the United States’ immigrant detention policy. U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee recently ruled that the current conditions in which immigrant families were being detained violated 18-year-old provisions established by another settlement known as Flores v. Meese.

Child detainees sleep in a holding cell at a US Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas. (Reuters/Eric Gay)

The settlement stated that juvenile immigrants cannot be detained for more than 72 hours unless they pose a significant flight risk or danger to themselves or others. Judge Gee found that federal officials “failed to meet even the minimal standard of safe and sanitary” conditions within temporary holding cells. She hopes to enter a nationwide injunction in which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will come into compliance with the Flores provisions by August 3rd. Over 1,700 immigrant families are currently detained within the United States.

Gee’s decision comes after U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called for a dramatic increase of detention beds during the summer of 2014, in which an unprecedented number of women and children entered the United States. The large number of migrant families was due to a number of factors – the biggest one being crushing poverty and gang violence in their countries of origin.

This ruling will change the lives of families who come to the U.S. looking for a better life and who are then detained in these privately owned facilities.  It is an example of why our federal  courts matter.  The decision is a step forward in changing the policies on how we treat immigrant families and may signal a change in the larger immigration policy questions that come in the future.

Nebraska’s Investment in Prison Reform Echoes the Goals of the Country

massincarceration“Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it,” President Obama said after he became the first president to visit a federal prison on July 16th, 2015. Following his excursion to El Reno Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, President Obama has decided to place prison reform as a top priority for the remainder of his term. On a federal level, the President seeks to reform prisons and sentencing – particularly for young offenders – reduce crowding, and ensure that inmates can successfully rejoin society after release.

In Nebraska, State Senators have already begun discussing these reforms for local correctional facilities. Reforms include the reduction of sentences for nonviolent offenders, limiting circumstances for former inmates to reveal their incarceration when applying for jobs, decreasing the use of solitary confinement, and increasing the use of programs for inmates (such as drug treatment, job training, and education) to prevent them from returning to a life behind bars.

These changes will affect the entire state. A 2013 report by the RAND Corporation, a global think tank, found that for every $1 invested in prison education programs, taxpayers saved $4-$5 on average by reducing spending on incarceration, as inmates who engaged in education programs while in prison were 43 percent less likely to engage in another crime.

Decreasing the amount of people in prison over time is key to successfully carrying out these reforms. There are currently 2.2 million people who are incarcerated (on the federal, state, and local level) which is seven times higher than the total two decades ago. In Nebraska, the state prisons, on average, are currently carrying 57 percent more prisoners than they was designed to. Disturbingly, numerous other institutions are far worse off. The Lincoln Diagnostic and Evaluation Center is carrying 185 percent more prisoners than its capacity.

Overcrowding can be dangerous in prisons, as it can lead to violence. For example, the state prison in Tecumseh experienced a riot in May 2015 that left two inmates dead and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. To prevent further tragedies like these, it is clear that something needs to be done. But rather than spending millions of dollars on expanding prison space and preserving the status quo, Nebraska is opting to improve the system.

As all branches of government take on the challenge of solving the numerous problems our prisons face, it is clear that courts matter. The lives of millions will be affected by these changes. For more information on Why Courts Matter go to www.courtsmatterne.org or follow us on Facebook and on Twitter at @courtsmatterne.

What’s at stake in Nebraska in the King v. Burwell ruling

courtsupremeBefore the end of June – and possibly the end of this week – the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on King v. Burwell, a case that will impact the affordability of health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The case is based on the ambiguity of the wording within the ACA and whether the IRS’s interpretation of those words as allowing for tax credits in state-based exchanges is legal.

King v. Burwell: Explained

If the Supreme Court rules that the IRS is justified in their reasoning, then tax credits will remain available to enrollees regardless of where they live, helping millions of Americans – and about 56,000 Nebraskans – afford their health coverage. But, if the Court rules tax credits are not available in states that don’t have a state-based exchange (like Nebraska), a key component of the ACA would be eliminated in many states. Ruling that tax credits are unavailable in these states would take away the assistance that make health insurance coverage affordable for around 9.3 million Americans.

Nebraska would be hit hard by such a ruling. Last year, nearly 7 in 10 people who enrolled through the Marketplace (healthcare.gov) selected a plan that cost $100 or less per month after factoring in tax credits. Nearly 9 in 10 Nebraskans who purchased coverage through the Marketplace received some tax credits to make their plan more affordable. Without tax credits, these enrollees may find that their insurance plan is now unaffordable.

One Nebraskan, Lisa Good, tells her story about why the ACA’s tax credits are so important.  Lisa, who lives in Lincoln, lost her job when she was 50. She had to spend six years without health insurance when her new job paid significantly less than the one she lost. Thanks to the ACA, Lisa was able to get health insurance through a plan costing just $33 per month after tax credits and no longer fears bankruptcy due to health issues.

“I was curious and called the HealthCare.gov phone number to ask some questions,” she said. “I found out I could actually afford this monthly premium that everyone had told me would be outrageous. The Affordable Care Act has made me feel like a real American—like I mattered and belonged. I’m grateful it will help keep me healthy and out of bankruptcy, should anything happen.”

This case is a prime example of why courts matter and why Americans should be aware of what the federal courts are doing. The King v. Burwell ruling has the potential to change the lives of tens of millions. For more information on Why Courts Matter go to www.courtsmatterne.org or follow us on Facebook and on Twitter at @courtsmatterne.

Nebraska’s federal judge nominee – Robert Rossiter Jr.

Photo from Creighton University School of Law
Robert Rossiter  Jr Creighton University School of Law

Robert Rossiter Jr. is an Omaha-based attorney who was nominated by Senators Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse to replace U.S. District Judge Joseph Bataillon. Bataillon’s vacancy was announced on October 2nd, 2013 and the nomination of Rossiter was made on August 15th, 2014. After nearly one year, however, a judicial vacancy remains in Nebraska’s District Court. Rossiter graduated from Creighton Law in Nebraska with honors in 1981. He has been listed in Best Lawyers in America since 1995 in the areas of labor and employment law. Rossiter has also been chair of the Federal Practice Committee for the district of Nebraska and also served as chair for the House of Delegates for the Nebraska Bar Association. Rossiter is currently an adjunct employment law professor and legal writing instructor at Creighton.

Nebraska’s judicial nomination process

When a vacancy occurs, lawyers submit their names for consideration to the judicial nominating commission. A public hearing is held and candidates are allowed to speak on their own behalf. The commission submits the names of at least two candidates to the Governor and voters are given the option to retain judges. If the governor does not make an appointment within 60 days of receiving the list of nominees from the judicial nominating commission, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court makes the appointment from the list.

Here is a sample letter that can be sent to Nebraska’s current Senators, Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse, to let them know that you would like judicial vacancies filled.

Dear Senator,

The federal courts and the judges who serve in life-time seats on those courts matter to me. Our nation’s federal courts make rulings on virtually every issue that is important to me and my family. Individuals turn to the courts to protect their basic rights and liberties. We need a federal judicial branch that is fully staffed by diverse judges with a variety of personal and professional backgrounds.

As my United States senator, you are in a position of great responsibility on this issue. I am counting on you to ensure that any of us can have our day in court and have confidence in a fair hearing and a ruling based on the Constitution.

Please ensure that every vacancy on the federal courts is filled by supporting prompt consideration and a confirmation vote on the Senate floor.