Pressure to elevate Black woman to Miami federal bench remains after Biden names nominees

President Joe Biden has identified his picks to fill vacancies on the federal bench in Miami, but continues to work on finding a Black woman to elevate as a judge in the Southern District of Florida amid pressure from Black lawyers and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson.

The White House on Wednesday announced that the president would nominate Jacqueline Becerra, Melissa Damian and David Leibowitz as federal judges for the Southern District. Also on the list of nominees was U.S. Magistrate Judge Julie S. Sneed, whom the president will name to serve on the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, based out of Tampa.

Becerra and Damian, both former federal prosecutors under the U.S. attorney in Miami, currently sit as U.S. magistrate judges in South Florida, a venue known for handling prominent cases, including Bush v. Gore, the Elián González saga and the ongoing prosecution of Donald Trump. Becerra is currently overseeing a case involving the prosecution of a suspect involved in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.

Leibowitz, a corporate attorney in Miami for the past decade, was previously a federal prosecutor in New York and Massachusetts.

Each will need to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, a process influenced by Marco Rubio, Florida’s senior U.S. senator, who has the power to single-handedly block votes on their confirmations. A procedure in the chamber allows all senators to withhold “blue slips,” or written opinions, of federal judges to be appointed within their home states, effectively spiking their nominations.

Leibowitz has been a top choice of Rubio for a seat on the bench for years. Leibowitz is the nephew of billionaire auto magnate Norman Braman, one of Rubio’s most prominent benefactors.

Neither Braman nor Leibowitz responded to the Herald’s requests for comment on Wednesday. Rubio, in a statement, called the nominations “long overdue” and urged the Senate “to move quickly in filling these vacancies.”

A White House official stressed that Leibowitz’s nomination is based on his qualifications, not his relationships, calling him “a highly qualified candidate.”

“He has extensive credentials including a JD from the University of Pennsylvania and a PHD from the London School of Economics. Leibowitz has served at the state level for 15 years — from Rhode Island to Massachusetts to New York,” the White House official said.

Succeeding Marcia Cooke

Biden’s nominations come amid calls in South Florida to fill one of the Southern District’s vacant seats with a Black woman following the death of Marcia Cooke, the first and only Black woman appointed as a federal judge to Florida’s Southern District federal court.

Sneed, the judge to be nominated in Tampa, is Black. But that’s not the case with Biden’s three nominees to the Southern District.

That did not go unnoticed on Wednesday, with U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Black Democrat representing Miami, saying in a statement that she is “disappointed” by Biden’s decision to not nominate a Black woman to fill Cooke’s seat.

“To many, it’s as if the administration has overlooked the wishes of the Black community and the challenges and disparities that we face in the justice system,” said Wilson. “It is my hope that the Administration makes good on its promise to advance the cause of justice, equality, and opportunity for all. As judicial openings become available, I will continue to work with the White House and hold them to their commitment to prioritize the appointment of Black women to the federal bench.”

The Judicial Diversity Initiative, a coalition of Black bar associations, released a statement on Wednesday echoing Wilson’s frustration.

“This disappointment is deepened by the fact that the White House appears to have overlooked multiple, qualified and well-regarded Black women attorneys and judges in the Southern District,” reads the statement, signed by eight attorneys.

Biden, who last year nominated the first-ever Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court last year — picking Ketanji Brown Jackson, who grew up in Miami — will have another opportunity to name a new judge to the federal bench in Miami after Judge Robert N. Scola Jr. recently reached senior status, creating a new vacancy in the Southern District.

H.T. Smith, a civil rights pioneer and prominent Miami lawyer, said he is “cautiously optimistic that an exceptionally qualified Black woman will be nominated to fill” Scola’s seat. Smith says the White House is looking to fill the newest vacancy with Detra Shaw-Wilder, a Black, female lawyer at Miami-based Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton, a commercial firm that was involved in securing a settlement for the families of the Surfside building-collapse victims.

Shaw-Wilder was recommended for a spot on the federal bench in 2021 along with Leibowitz by a nominating committee handpicked by Rubio. She was also recommended by a second nominating commission appointed by U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other Democratic congressional members from South Florida.

“The White House recognizes the importance of nominating a highly-qualified, Black woman to the Southern District of Florida,” the White House official told the Herald, adding that the Biden administration “is in active talks to help ensure that happens.”