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 beneficial, including by inspiring greater public confidence in the courts.
“I also think demonstrating diversity of all types helps us to achieve a role-modeling result for young students, law students, young lawyers,” Ms. Jackson-Akiwumi said. “It is important for anyone aspiring to public service to know that path is open to all.”
The Biden White House and Senate Democrats are trying to move quickly to fill scores of federal court vacancies after Mr. Trump placed more than 220 conservative judges on the federal courts with the assistance of Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who made judicial confirmations a high priority while he was majority leader. He said he was not surprised at the Democratic push.
“That’s what I would do if I were in their shoes,” Mr. McConnell said in a recent interview. “Pick as many outstanding liberals as you can, and try to get them confirmed as quickly as you can. I wrote the playbook on that. I can’t blame them for taking a look at how it was done. I think it was done very effectively.”
Both nominees declined to weigh in on the question of expanding the Supreme Court or whether they would accept a nomination on an enlarged court — a proposal that progressive groups are pushing, which Republicans fiercely oppose.
Pointing to the campaign by progressives, Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, called the nominations a result of a concerted effort to pressure Mr. Biden into naming liberal judges to the courts. He suggested that Judge Jackson had ruled against the Trump administration in a high-profile case to bolster her nomination prospects. She denied the claim.
“I know very well what my obligations are,” Judge Jackson said. “My duties are not to rule with partisan advantage in mind. I have always been an independent judge, and I believe that is one of the reasons the president honored me with my nomination.”
Mr. Biden has promised to name the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, and Judge Jackson’s prospects as a future nominee could make Republicans reluctant to vote for her. Even if all Republicans oppose the nominees, Democrats can seat them if they remain united.
The district court judges considered on Wednesday were Regina M. Rodriguez for a seat in Colorado and Julien Xavier Neals and Zahid N. Quraishi for seats in New Jersey, which has been deemed to have a critical number of judicial vacancies. If confirmed, Mr. Quraishi, currently a federal magistrate, would be the first federal district judge who is Muslim.
“Candidly, I would prefer to be the hundredth, if not the thousandth,” he said. “I understand what it means to the community.”