Exceptional Civil Rights Advocates Nominated to U.S. District Court Seats


Nora Howe

Earlier this week, oral arguments were heard at the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the temporary injunction issued by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pitman barring enforcement of Texas’s abortion law. On October 6, 2021, in a 113-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pitman issued a temporary injunction barring enforcement of Texas’s abortion law. In the decision, Judge Pitman wrote that “from the moment SB 8 went into effect, [pregnant people] have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution.” While Judge Pitman’s injunction was halted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit days later, his order was the first that addressed the stark unconstitutionality of SB 8, which effectively ended abortion care in Texas overnight.  

When we hear about federal courts, we usually think about the U.S. Supreme Court. On occasion, we see the U.S. courts of appeals mentioned in the news. But rarely do we discuss the trial-level federal courts — district courts like Judge Pitman’s — which are the foundation of our federal judiciary. District court judges play a crucial role in the administration of equal justice. Ensuring district court judges also represent the diversity of the legal profession and our nation is of the upmost importance.

Judge Pitman, an Obama nominee, was the first openly gay United States Attorney in Texas, and is the first openly gay judge on the Fifth Circuit. But far too often, federal judges fit one mold: white, male, straight, and affluent, having represented the rich and powerful as former corporate attorneys and prosecutors. 

Although these attorneys have been the norm in the federal judiciary, the tide is changing, because President Biden and Senate Democrats have decided to do things differently. They have worked to ensure that our federal judges, those who safeguard our Constitutional rights, better reflect the diversity within the legal field and of the American people. Four recent district court nominees, all whom went before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the last few weeks, exemplify this commitment to diversity. These attorneys are exactly what we need at all levels of the federal judiciary.  

  • Charlotte Sweeney, who was recommended by Senators Bennet and Hickenlooper of Colorado. Sweeney, who would be the first openly gay woman district court judge west of the Mississippi, has been fighting for workers’ rights for decades. As a founding partner at Colorado’s leading labor and employment firm, she helped draft Colorado’s Equal Pay for Equal Work Act. In one illustrative case, Sweeney represented several tenured female University of Denver law professors who sued the school for systematically and repeatedly paying them less than tenured male professors for the same work. Sweeney ultimately won a $2.66 million settlement for the professors and an agreement from the school to change policies and eliminate the gender pay gap. In another case, Sweeney represented a Mexican-American physician at Colorado University who was fired after he filed complaints describing the racial discrimination he experienced at work. At a jury trial, the physician ultimately won hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.  
  • Judge Hernán D. Vera, the son of Argentine immigrants, who was recommended by Senators Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein of California. Judge Vera spent the majority of his career at Public Counsel, the largest pro bono public interest firm in the world. Specializing in class action suits, Judge Vera started as Directing Attorney of the Consumer Law Project and ultimately served as President and CEO. In one of the many cases he litigated, Judge Vera represented a woman experiencing homelessness who had been subject to the horrific practice of “hospital dumping.” After receiving treatment for dementia, the hospital had put her in a taxi to Skid Row where she was dropped off wearing only a hospital gown and socks. The case brought considerable attention to this appalling practice and forced the hospital system to change its policies. In another, Vera sued the state of California on behalf of farmworkers for refusing to enforce regulations that provided water, shade, and rest to the hundreds of thousands of farmworkers in the state, a refusal that led to the deaths of at least 28 farmworkers. The farmworkers were successful in their suit and won broad injunctive relief measures.  
  • Judge Maame Ewusi-Mensah Frimpong, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, who was also recommended by Senators Padilla and Feinstein. Judge Frimpong rose up the ranks at the U.S. Department of Justice as a consumer protection attorney. As Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Consumer Protection Litigation, Judge Frimpong led dozens of cases, most of them focused on wrongdoing by prescription drug manufacturers. For example, Judge Frimpong led the prosecution of W. Scott Harkonen, a pharmaceutical CEO who marketed and sold a drug to treat a fatal disease even after the drug had been proven ineffective during clinical trials. After finishing her career at the DOJ as Counselor to Attorney General Eric Holder, Judge Frimpong, who engaged in international human rights work throughout her career, served as Vice President and General Counsel at the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. agency focused on fighting global poverty. 
  • Judge Katherine M. Menendez, who served as a federal defender for two decades prior to becoming a U.S. Magistrate Judge, was recommended by Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith of Minnesota. As a public defender, Judge Menendez ensured that Minnesotans accused of crimes had the robust defense they were entitled to under the Constitution. In one instance — United States v. Johnson — Judge Menendez’s representation took her all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of Menendez’s client and struck down the law in question as unconstitutionally void in an 8-1 decision authored by Justice Scalia. Judge Menendez was a leader at her office outside of litigation matters as well. When the U.S. Sentencing Commission revised the crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentence disparity, she spearheaded her office’s work to review every case effected by the disparity and file motions for each individual eligible for re-sentencing.    

These nominees from California, Colorado, and Minnesota are models for future district court nominees who will ensure that the federal trial courts are places of equal justice, dignity, and respect for all. These advocates have spent their career protecting and defending the rights of all Americans. Their lived experiences represent the diversity of our country.  

We must applaud both the senators who recommended them and the leadership of Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin for moving quickly to hold hearings. And we must schedule votes on these outstanding nominees and ensure that they are confirmed expeditiously. As we saw with the relief Judge Pitman granted pregnant Texans, these judges play a crucial role in administering justice and safeguarding our constitutional rights.