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Biden resumes spree of nominations to break barriers on the bench

Announcing nine appointments to the federal bench, the White House touted President Joe Biden on Wednesday for continuing a judicial-nominating commitment that recognizes diverse professional and racial backgrounds.

To the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the president has tapped Holly Thomas and Gabriel Sanchez, both judges today on state courts in California, as well as U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh, a member of the Northern District of California since 2010.

Former President Barack Obama nominated Koh to the Northern District and originally tapped her for the Ninth Circuit back in 2016. Her nomination was returned, however, after Republicans exploited their upper-chamber majority to wait out the presidential election and eventual change of power.

Koh previously worked as a judge on the California Superior Court in Santa Clara County. Before becoming a judge, she spent eight years in private practice as an attorney and seven prior working for the U.S. Department of Justice. No U.S. appellate court has had a female Korean-American judge before. After Judge Jacqueline Nguyen, who came up from California's Central District in the Obama administration, Judge Koh would only be the second woman with Asian American Pacific Islander ancestry to serve on the Ninth Circuit.

Thomas, if confirmed, would be the second Black woman to ever serve on the Ninth Circuit and the first to do so from California. She has been a judge in the Los Angeles Superior Court’s Family Law division since 2018. The White House announcement also touts her experience as a deputy director at the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing between 2016 and 2018; special counsel to the New York solicitor general from 2015 to 2016; and appellate attorney for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division between 2010 and 2015. 

Sanchez has been an associate justice on the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District since 2018. Prior to that, he worked in California government as deputy legal affairs secretary to Governor Edmund Brown. He also spent a year between 2011 and 2012 working as a deputy attorney general in correctional law.

Wednesday’s announcement brings the president’s total number of judicial nominees to 43.

Now 231 days into his first term, Biden, according to the administration, has put forward more judicial candidates at this point than any other president in modern American history, including former President Donald Trump. The Democrat has reportedly focused on speed in this area to match or exceed the more than 200 judges that Trump put on federal benches nationwide.

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For openings in California's Central District, Biden on Wednesday announced Judges Maame Frimpong and Hernán Vera, both now judges on the Los Angeles Superior Court. He also tapped U.S. Magistrate Judges Katherine Marie Menendez and Judge Jennifer Thurston, respectively, for federal judgeships in Minnesota and California, and attorney David Herrera Urias for a district judgeship in New Mexico.

If confirmed, Frimpong would be the only active Black woman to serve as a federal judge in any of California’s four district courts. A superior court judge since 2016, she previously spent a year working as vice president and general counsel of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a bilateral United States foreign aid agency. She also spent eight years prior to that at the  Department of Justice. Roles for Frimpong at the agency included counselor to the attorney general and principal deputy associate attorney general. She also has private firm experience from working as an associate at Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco. 

The other judge slated for the Central District of California was appointed to the Los Angeles County Superior Court in 2020. Prior to this, Vera served as a principal at the firm Bird Marella for five years from 2015. And before that, he spent 12 years working for Public Counsel, the largest pro bono public interest law firm in the nation, as both a directing attorney and president and CEO.

Menendez has been a magistrate judge in Minnesota since 2016. Her experience includes having previously worked for the Office of the Federal Defender for the District of Minnesota for nearly 20 years from 1997 to 2016.  

Thurston has been a U.S. magistrate judge for Eastern District of California since 2009, becoming chief magistrate in October last year. She previously worked beginning in 1997 as deputy county counsel for the Office of County Counsel in Bakersfield, California, working on civil matters.

Rounding out the group of nominees Wednesday, attorney David Urias was put forward for a seat on the District of New Mexico. Urias is a partner at the firm Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Urias & Ward, located in Albuquerque. Previously, he was a staff attorney at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund where he worked in San Antonio, Texas.

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U.S. Senate

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh laughs at a 2016 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee after an emotional introduction to her family and supporters in the gallery.