Editor’s note: This story has been updated.
In a 53-40 vote Thursday, the U.S. Senate confirmed Candace Jackson-Akiwumi to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, making her the first person of color to sit on that bench since Judge Ann Claire Williams, the first person of color to join that court, retired in 2018.
Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted in support of Jackson-Akiwumi’s confirmation, according to Bloomberg.
Jackson-Akiwumi, among President Joe Biden’s first judicial nominees, will fill the Illinois seat that became vacant when Joel Flaum took senior status in late 2020. She is currently a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP, in Washington, D.C., practicing in the areas of complex civil litigation, white collar criminal defense and investigations.
Following the Senate’s vote Wednesday to end the debate and advance the nomination, Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called upon the Senate to confirm Jackson-Akiwumi.
“For far too long, our courts have not reflected the incredible diversity of our communities, and this is especially true for the Seventh Circuit, which has not had a single judge of color for years,” Henderson said. “We applaud the president and Senate for moving to right that wrong and make our federal judiciary fairer and more representative of the nation. Jackson-Akiwumi, who dedicated her career to service as a public defender, will no doubt be an exceptional judge on the Seventh Circuit. With her considerable intellect and proven experience, she will work to bring us closer to achieving ‘equal justice under the law.’”
Born and raised in Norfolk, Virginia, Jackson-Akiwumi has deep ties to Chicago. She clerked for now-retired Judge David Coar of the Northern Illinois District Court from 2005 to 2006. After clerking for now-Chief Judge Roger Gregory of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals from 2006 to 2007, she returned to Chicago and worked as a litigation associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP from 2007 to 2010.
Then from 2010 to 2020, she was a staff attorney at the Federal Defender Program in the Northern District of Illinois. There she represented more than 400 indigent clients accused of federal crimes.
Jackson-Akiwumi’s background as a public defender is a departure from the path that attorneys traditionally have taken to the federal bench. The Biden administration has stated it is focused on nominating individuals to the judiciary who “reflect the full diversity of the American people — both in background and in professional experience.”
Republicans have questioned Jackson-Akiwumi’s qualifications and whether she has enough experience in civil law.
Carl Tobias, professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said he does not understand that argument. He noted Jackson-Akiwumi and other Biden judicial nominees do have civil law experience, and many of former President Donald Trump’s picks for the federal courts had only limited experience in either criminal or civil practice.
He applauded Biden’s push for experiential diversity on the bench.
“I think it’s a breath of fresh air,” Tobias said. “I think it’s important to have people who represent different sides. It’s important for the justice system and for having a fair and just result.”
Jackson-Akiwumi earned her bachelor’s degree with honors from Princeton University in 2000 and her J.D. from Yale Law School in 2005.
She comes from a family of lawyers. Her father is Judge Raymond Alvin Jackson of the Eastern Virginia District Court and her mother, Judge Gwendolyn Jackson, served on the Virginia state courts for more than 20 years before she retired in 2015.