Several prominent Latino legal and civil rights groups are pushing for more Hispanic nominees to the federal bench, saying that President Joe Biden's first slate of judicial nominees, which includes one Latina, is "unacceptable" and that it falls short of his declaration that federal courts "should reflect the full diversity of the American people."
Biden's list includes three African American women chosen for appeals court vacancies, a man who would be the first Muslim American federal district judge in U.S. history and Regina Rodriguez, a nominee for U.S. District Court in Colorado. The announcement was hailed in the media and by progressive groups as "groundbreaking."
The sentiment was not shared by several Latino civil rights leaders.
"The fact that the administration chose to roll out this first group without more Latinos is indicative of the low priority of Latinos to them," said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "We are the largest racial or ethnic group, and we are getting the least? We can't accept that."
Saenz and Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, said in a joint statement: "We are extremely disappointed that the President included only one member of the Latino community in this first set of nominees to our federal courts. This level of underrepresentation is utterly unacceptable when Latinos have been the largest minority group in this country since 2003 and when Latino voters are as responsible as any group of voters for Biden's close electoral victory."
The Biden administration is eager to make its mark on the judiciary, particularly after President Donald Trump placed more than 200 judges on the federal courts.
According to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, as of May 2020 Latinos were 6 percent of appeals judges and 7 percent of district judges. In contrast, Latinos are about 18 percent of the U.S. population.
Five of the 13 federal appeals courts have no active Hispanic judges, and the D.C. appeals court has never had a Latino judge. The D.C. court is especially important because it often deals with administrative and constitutional law, and it is viewed as a steppingstone to the Supreme Court.
"It is important to have Latinx judges because perspective matters, and Latinos are disproportionately represented among those drawn into the federal criminal justice system." Cartagena told NBC News. Appellate court judgeships, he said, are important because appellate courts are one step below the Supreme Court.
Saenz said the administration missed an opportunity to send a message about including Latinos in the judiciary. "This was the first slate of nominees. No other slate will garner this much attention except for Supreme Court nominations. Yet they crafted a message that virtually excluded us."
Saenz noted that the administration included no Latinos in its initial announcement of nominees for leadership positions at the Justice Department.
Rodriguez called 'uniquely qualified'
The Hispanic National Bar Association said in a statement that while it was proud to have endorsed Rodriguez this year based on her legal qualifications, commitment to equal opportunity and contributions to her community, its support came with a caveat.
"We must note she is the only Hispanic nominee of this Administration's first eleven judicial candidates," said the bar association's president, Elia Diaz-Yaeger. "If this Administration is truly committed to ensuring that our courts reflect the communities they serve, they will need to nominate more Hispanic candidates."
Rodriguez, a graduate of the University of Iowa and the University of Colorado School of Law who is a partner in a corporate law firm, has worked as an assistant U.S. attorney for Colorado. She is of Mexican and Japanese descent (her mother's family was sent to a Wyoming internment camp during World War II).
Rodriguez was nominated to the federal bench in 2016 by President Barack Obama, but congressional Republicans denied a hearing. This time around, some progressive voices have raised the point that she is a corporate lawyer, not someone whose "legal experiences have been historically underrepresented," as the Biden transition team said it was seeking in December.
The Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Colorado and the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association endorsed Rodriguez's nomination, citing her professional accolades and community commitment.
"She is uniquely qualified to step into the role of a federal judge and immediately start making an impact," said Jonathan Booker, president of the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association. He said Rodriguez had represented four children detained at the border and that she represented the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association in a congressional redistricting trial.
"We couldn't be more proud that she received the nomination," he said.
It's not about diversity, but 'equity'
Saenz said a slate with more Latino representation could have had a ripple effect in other fields in which Latinos are underrepresented, like the media and entertainment. "We don't just need diversity - we need equity, a concept that recognizes the relative size and importance of our population."
Cartagena said having more Latino judges matters for visibility. "When you are a group that doesn't see yourself in the halls of power, it can make a difference." He cited Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as a positive role model so youths can see themselves in the legal profession and in the justice system.
Cartagena said: "Can this all be course-corrected? Yes. Should we expect that the Biden administration will likely do better in the future? Yes. But should we stay silent right now? No."
Biden is expected to announce more judicial nominees in the coming weeks.