Pryor garners praise, makes history as she prepares to join 7th Circuit

Judge Doris Pryor (IL file photo)

The bipartisan vote of 60-31 by the U.S. Senate in favor of her confirmation to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals provided another example of how much people like and respect Judge Doris Pryor.

Several Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and both Indiana Sens. Todd Young and Mike Braun, joined Democrats in voting for the Indiana jurist. Pryor is the first person of color from Indiana to serve on the 7th Circuit, making her elevation a historic milestone.

“Judge Pryor is a public servant of the highest caliber,” Young said in a statement after the confirmation vote. “She understands the difference between the role of an advocate and the role of a judge, and she will be an immense asset to the Seventh Circuit.”

Before the vote was taken, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, described Pryor as having the “brains of a jurist and the heart of a public servant.”

Also, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, called Pryor “an outstanding nominee to the appellate bench.”

Pryor has served as a magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana since 2018, when she filled the vacancy created by the death of Denise LaRue. Before joining the bench, Pryor served about 12 years in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Indiana, where she filled a variety of roles including handling criminal matters and federal appeals, serving as national security chief, and working as the office’s reentry and prevention coordinator.

In the Indianapolis community, Pryor mentored law students and helped found the Re-Entry and Community Health, or REACH, program, which provides support to formerly incarcerated individuals who are at high-risk of reoffending.

“Judge Pryor has significant federal experience and a proven track record of neutral decision-making on the bench,” Durbin continued. “I strongly support her nomination, and I encourage my colleagues to do the same.”

Carl Tobias, professor at the University of Richmond School of Law and an expert on the federal judicial selection process, said he is not surprised Pryor was confirmed. He credited Young with convincing his Republican colleagues to vote for confirmation but added that Pryor’s personality and temperament also convinced a majority in the upper chamber to support her nomination.

In her hearing before the judiciary committee, Pryor was “very articulate, very clear, not evasive. I think she was very candid and forthright,” Tobias said. “I think senators like that.”

Pryor is the 26th nominee confirmed to a circuit court and the 88th judicial confirmation overall under President Joe Biden, Schumer said on the Senate floor.

Saying goodbye

Pryor will be filling the vacancy on the 7th Circuit created when Judge David Hamilton takes senior status. Hamilton, who was former President Barack Obama’s first federal court nominee, announced in December of last year his intention to take senior status. 

Once Pryor receives the official notification of her confirmation in the mail, she will begin the process of moving to the circuit court.

The Indiana Southern  District Court said as a magistrate judge, Pryor has “superbly managed” her civil cases and “expertly presided” over criminal matters. In addition, she has hosted and participated in multiple civic education programs and is a founding member of the court’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee and Wellness Committee.

“While we will miss Judge Pryor’s service to the Southern District of Indiana, we couldn’t be prouder of her elevation to the Seventh Circuit,” Chief Judge Tanya Walton Pratt said in a statement. “Judge Pryor has proven herself to be an excellent judge during her time with us and I am confident she will be an excellent circuit judge. My fellow judges and I congratulate Judge Pryor on her achievement and look forward to her thorough, thoughtful review of our cases.”

Diversity on the bench

Pryor’s elevation to the 7th Circuit is part of a transformation of the court from one of the least diverse in the country to now welcoming three jurists of color since 2021.

Judge Ann Claire Williams, a graduate of Notre Dame Law School, was the first person of color to sit on the 7th Circuit. She was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1985 to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, then nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1999 to the Chicago-based appellate court.

After taking senior status in 2017, Williams retired in 2018, and the 7th Circuit’s bench became all white.

Under the Trump administration, Judges Michael Brennan, Michael Scudder, Amy St. Eve were all confirmed to the 7th Circuit.

The confirmation of Judge Thomas Kirsch II, another Trump nominee, to an Indiana seat on the 7th Circuit highlighted consternation about the court’s lack of diversity.

In 2016, the Obama administration nominated retired Indiana Justice Myra Selby, a Black woman, to the seat that had been held by Judge John Tinder. However, then-Indiana Sen. Dan Coats blocked the nomination, saying the nominee should be selected from a list of recommendations submitted by a committee of Indiana residents.

No such committee existed at that time and no committee was ever formed, so Selby’s nomination stalled and she never appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Upon entering the White House, former President Donald Trump tapped now-Justice Amy Coney Barrett for Tinder’s seat on the 7th Circuit, then successfully nominated her to the U.S. Supreme Court when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died in September 2020.

Biden nominated Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, a former public defender and the first person of color to sit on the 7th Circuit since Williams, and Judge John Lee, the first Asian American to sit on the 7th Circuit. Pryor’s confirmation expands the diversity on the appellate court.

Lena Zwarensteyn, senior director of the Fair Courts Program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, applauded the Biden administration’s efforts to change the composition of the federal courts to “reflect our country in a much more realistic and authentic way.” The president has selected nominees who bring racial and gender diversity to the bench but also have different professional experiences, Zwarensteyn said, such as having worked as a public defender or civil rights attorney.

“Someone who comes from a different legal practice or has come from a different community can relate to both the law and the people in those courtrooms in a way that is different from people who might not have that experience,” Zwarensteyn said. “So it actually does a lot to improve judicial decision-making as well as give people more confidence in what the court is doing.”

Journey to the 7th Circuit

Born in Hope, Arkansas, Pryor came to the Hoosier State to get her J.D. degree at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. She graduated in 2003 and subsequently served as a law clerk for Chief Judge Lavenski Smith of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and then for Judge J. Leon Holmes of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

Pryor has returned often to her alma mater in Bloomington. She has taught pretrial litigation and delivered the keynote address as well as administered the oath of professionalism to the 2021 incoming class.

“The Maurer School of Law sends its most hearty congratulations to Judge Doris Pryor ’03 on her confirmation to the Seventh Circuit,” IU Maurer Dean Christiana Ochoa said in a statement following the vote. “We are so proud that she will contribute to the long legacy of our alumni serving the judiciary. Judge Pryor’s achievements are particularly notable as she becomes the first woman of color from Indiana to serve on the Seventh Circuit.”

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