WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday will hold a confirmation hearing for Candace Rae Jackson-Akiwumi, nominated by President Joe Biden to sit on the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the very rare judge, if confirmed, who brings the perspective of a criminal defense lawyer to the bench.
A partner in a D.C. law firm only since last year, Jackson-Akiwumi spent a formative 10 years, between 2010 and 2020, as a staff attorney at the Federal Defender Program for the Northern District of Illinois.
If confirmed, as expected — Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin recruited her for the position — she will mark two milestones: Jackson-Akiwumi will be only the second Black woman ever on the Seventh Circuit and will be the only person of color currently on the Chicago appeals court.
And according to the Alliance for Justice, a liberal law group, Jackson-Akiwumi will be “only the third federal appellate judge to have spent a majority of their career as a public defender.”
Jackson-Akiwumi was among those in Biden’s first wave of 11 judicial nominations, where he made good on a promise to diversify the white, male dominated federal bench as well as to draw on lawyers with different backgrounds – including, as is Jackson-Akiwumi, public defenders.
In her Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire, Jackson-Akiwumi reveals how her nomination was in the works even before Biden was president. She said Durbin’s staff reached out to her about the Seventh Circuit vacancy last Dec. 30, a few weeks before Biden was sworn-in. On Jan. 11 and Jan. 12, she was in contact with officials in the incoming White House Counsel’s office.
On Jan. 25 — four days after Biden became president — she said she interviewed with attorneys from the White House Counsel’s office and later was in contact with the Office of Legal Policy at the Department of Justice.
“On March 4, 2021, I met with President Biden and White House Counsel Dana Remus at the White House concerning the nomination. On March 30, 2021, the President announced his intent to nominate me.”
The Chicago Urban League, the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago, Inc., and the National Council of Jewish Women were among those who submitted letters supporting her nomination to the Judiciary Committee.
Karen Freeman-Wilson, the Chicago Urban League President and CEO, said in her letter, As “a federal public defender and a long-term resident of Chicago’s South Side, Candace is also mindful and deliberative in applying her skills as a lawyer to facilitate fair decisions, engage in open dialogue, and positively impact those in underserved communities. Additionally, she displays great analytical and communication skills, an effortless rapport with her peers, and a profound respect and enthusiasm for human dignity and community development.”
The leaders of the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago, Inc., who include its founder, now retired Judge Ann Claire Williams — the first and only judge of color to sit on the Seventh Circuit and the third Black woman to serve on any federal circuit court — noted Jackson-Akiwumi’s leadership role with the group and her work “developing a pipeline program to promote and increase Black woman lawyer representation at large law firms.”
The National Council of Jewish Women noted the history-making aspects of the Jackson-Akiwumi nomination in their letter.
“If confirmed, Jackson-Akiwumi would be the third appeals court judge to have spent the majority of her career as a public defender, the first-ever former federal defender on the Seventh Circuit, and the only Black woman on the Seventh Circuit — currently an all-white court.”
After graduating from Princeton in 2000 and Yale law school in 2005, she had two clerkships, including one with now retired U.S. District Court Judge David H. Coar, one of the few Black judges to sit on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
After three years as an associate at the Chicago office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, Jackson-Akiwumi joined the Federal Defender Program.
She described those years as a federal public defender in detail in her Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire.
“During my decade as a federal defender, I represented over 400 clients accused of federal crimes at every stage of the process, from investigation to trial and pre-trial proceedings, sentencing, and appeal, including petitions for writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.
“In case types ranging from fraud to firearms, I successfully advised grand jury witness appearances, negotiated pleas, and achieved hundreds of mitigated sentences. I tried seven federal jury trials. I briefed and argued five more appeals in the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
“In the hundreds of cases where my clients ultimately chose not to go trial or chose not to appeal their conviction or sentence, I nonetheless evaluated and advised on potential trial issues and potential appellate issues throughout the pre-trial, trial, and sentencing phases of the case.
“I drafted and argued a large number of substantive motions at the trial level including motions to dismiss and motions to suppress. I also litigated hundreds of contested hearings, ranging from bond hearings to revocation hearings, suppression hearings, and sentencing hearings. Additionally, in many of my cases I supervised teams that assisted me in investigating facts, developing sentencing mitigation, and securing resources for clients with mental health, substance abuse, housing, and other needs.”
One of her notable legal achievements was her work, with two other lawyers, of ending the practice of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives of establishing phony drug stash houses. She challenged the pattern of the ATF, she said in her questionnaire, of “bringing these cases largely against African-American and Latino defendants. . ..The litigation also resulted in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois no longer charging fictitious stash house cases.”