New Jersey Voters Support Appointing Public Defenders, Civil Rights Lawyers to Federal Bench

A new poll from Data for Progress and The Lab, a policy vertical of The Appeal, shows that New Jersey voters broadly support their senators recommending more civil rights lawyers and public defenders to serve on the federal bench.

Likely voters in New Jersey overwhelmingly support the idea that their senators should prioritize individuals with experience as public defenders and civil rights lawyers in their recommendations to President Biden for judicial nominees: 62% of likely voters and 82% of likely Democratic voters support prioritizing nominating those with experience as public defenders and civil rights lawyers.

Key Context

The federal judicial bench today includes few judges with experience in public defense or civil rights law, while the jobs of prosecutor and corporate lawyer have been the most common paths to a judgeship. This imbalance of professional experience inevitably influences judicial decisionmaking and projects bias, undermining public confidence in the courts. 

The Biden administration has already taken steps toward reversing this trend. Last month, Dana Remus, President Biden’s White House counsel, sent a letter asking Democratic senators to recommend candidates for judicial nominations prioritizing those who have served as public defenders and civil rights lawyers. 

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker has also endorsed the need for professional diversity on the federal bench, observing that “individual rights are being eroded in civil rights, in voting rights…and so we’ve got to get back to balancing individual rights against corporate rights,” and stating that he is “committed to fair-minded judges who will protect the Constitution, who will defend [against] this terrible slant going on right now that’s taking away power from individual Americans and shifting it towards corporations.”

According to data from the Federal Judicial Center, the lack of diversity among federal judges in New Jersey brings the national trend into sharp relief. 

In the District of New Jersey:

  • Of 11 active judges, 6 are former prosecutors and 2 are former public defenders;
  • Of the 7 judges appointed by President Barack Obama, 4 are former prosecutors and 2 are former public defenders (including 1 who is also a former prosecutor).

On the Third Circuit Court of Appeals:

  • All 4 active New Jersey judges are former prosecutors, and none is a former public defender.

With 6 current judicial vacancies for federal judges in New Jersey, Senators Booker and Robert Menendez can recommend candidates who will bring the diversity of professional background and experience that their constituents demand. 

Polling Methodology

From January 16 to January 19, 2021, Data for Progress conducted a survey of 553 likely voters in New Jersey using web panel respondents. The sample was weighted to be representative of likely voters by age, gender, education, race, and voting history. The survey was conducted in English. The margin of error is ±4.2 percentage points.

New Jersey Voters Support Appointing Public Defenders, Civil Rights Lawyers to Federal Bench