WASHINGTON – On February 2, 2021, U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) took a new title: Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the following 11 months, the Committee has addressed key challenges confronting the country—including voting rights, gun violence prevention, immigration, and criminal justice reform—and confirmed highly qualified nominees who are bringing balance and impartiality back to our justice system.
Key moments from the Senate Judiciary Committee’s first session in the 117th Congress:
The Committee held 63 hearings in 2021, ranging from the “Jim Crow 2021” hearing on voting rights; to a hearing on ransomware attacks; to the first Senate hearing on the Equality Act; to five hearings on gun violence, including a field hearing on gun trafficking in Durbin’s home state of Illinois.
Chair Durbin made it a priority to respond to emerging issues and longstanding problems alike. In September, the Committee held a hearing examining the Supreme Court’s abuse of its “shadow-docket” following its order permitting Texas’s extreme new abortion restrictions to take effect. The Committee also held the first Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay since 2013.
In addition to full committee hearings, our eight Subcommittees went above and beyond to respond to issues under the Committee’s jurisdiction. Our Subcommittee leaders include Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chair of the Subcommittee on Intellectual Property; Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law; Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Chair of the Subcommittee on Federal Courts, Oversight, Agency Action, and Federal Rights; and Chris Coons (D-DE), Chair of the Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law. The Subcommittee on the Constitution, chaired by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT); and the Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights, chaired by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), led the Subcommittees in total number of hearings held, with eight and seven respectively, as Senator Blumenthal chaired important hearings on gun violence prevention and constitutional rights and Senator Klobuchar upheld her commitment to “make antitrust cool again.”
And under Chair Durbin’s leadership, the Committee saw several historic firsts, as Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chair of the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism, became the first Black Senator to chair a Judiciary Committee subcommittee; and Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA) took the gavel as the first Latino Chair of the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety.
Regular agency oversight hearings were the norm under the Obama Administration, a tradition which Durbin has restored by holding the first Department of Justice (DOJ) oversight hearing since 2017 and the first Department of Homeland Security oversight hearing since 2018—the lone times the Committee held oversight hearings on these two critical agencies during the Trump Administration.
In March, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Chris Wray testified in a hearing on domestic terrorism and the January 6 insurrection—the Committee’s first FBI oversight hearing since 2019 and the first testimony Wray had given since the January 6 attack. In April, the Committee held a Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) oversight hearing. After Bureau leadership’s failure to address concerns raised at the hearing, such as their failure to implement critical reforms under the First Step Act, and following an Associated Press investigation that found BOP is a “hotbed of abuse, graft and corruption, and has turned a blind eye to employees accused of misconduct,” Durbin called on Attorney General Garland to dismiss BOP Director Carvajal.
In September, after a DOJ Inspector General report documented the FBI’s failure to investigate reports that Larry Nassar was assaulting young athletes, which enabled the continued abuse of dozens of additional victims, Chair Durbin held a hearing on the FBI’s dereliction of duty, with testimony from Olympic and world champion gymnasts, FBI Director Wray, and DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz. Shortly after this hearing, the Justice Department announced an internal review of its earlier decision to decline prosecution of the FBI agents who committed misconduct in the Nassar case.
In October, following an eight-month investigation, Chair Durbin released new testimony and an interim staff report, “Subverting Justice: How the Former President and his Allies Pressured DOJ to Overturn the 2020 Election.” The report and testimony revealed that we were only a half-step away from a full blown constitutional crisis as then-President Trump and his loyalists threatened a wholesale takeover of the Justice Department. The report shed new light on Trump’s relentless efforts to coopt DOJ into overturning the 2020 election—the first comprehensive accounting of those efforts.
President Biden nominated a historic slate of professionally and demographically diverse individuals to the federal bench. These nominees bring experience and qualifications that were too often lacking under the previous Administration. And under Chair Durbin’s leadership, the Senate confirmed more judicial nominees in the first year of a new Administration than any president in the last 40 years.
The Judiciary Committee began the year by confirming senior leadership to the Department of Justice, including Attorney General Merrick Garland; Deputy AG Lisa Monaco; Associate AG Vanita Gupta, the first civil rights lawyer confirmed to this role; and Assistant AG Kristen Clarke, the first Black woman confirmed to lead the Civil Rights Division.
The outstanding judicial nominees confirmed this year are committed to impartiality and the fair and evenhanded administration of justice—and because our justice system is stronger when it represents the communities it serves, their professional and demographic diversity will increase Americans’ faith in the judiciary. By the end of the year, the Senate had confirmed 11 circuit court judges, 29 district court judges, and 31 U.S. Attorneys. Of the 40 judicial nominees, according to data released by the White House: 78% are women, 53% are people of color, 20% had experience as civil rights lawyers, and 40% formerly served as public defenders.
Historic judicial and executive nominees advanced by this Committee include: Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, the only current Black judge to serve on the Seventh Circuit and only the second ever; Tiffany Cunningham, the first Black judge to serve on the Federal Circuit; Beth Robinson, the first openly LGBTQ woman to serve on any federal circuit court; Lucy Koh, the first Korean-American woman to serve on a U.S. federal appeals court; Zahid Quraishi, the first Muslim American federal judge in U.S. history; Damian Williams, the first Black U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York; and Greg Harris, the first Black U.S. Attorney in the Central District of Illinois.
Chair Durbin worked across the aisle to deliver for the American people. In February, he introduced the bipartisan Dream Act of 2021 with Senator Graham. Durbin spent the year fighting tirelessly for Dreamers, TPS holders, and immigrant farmworkers—which included meetings at the White House and a visit to our southern border with Vice President Harris and Secretary Mayorkas. In March, he led a bipartisan, bicameral coalition in introducing legislation to strengthen the Victims of Crime Act, which President Biden signed into law after the bill passed the Senate in July. In May, the Committee passed three bipartisan law enforcement bills during Police Week, which President Biden signed into law in November. The Senate also came together to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which became law in May. In November, Durbin and Senators Leahy (D-VT), Murkowski (R-AK), and Manchin (D-WV) announced a new bipartisan compromise on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, opening a bipartisan effort to update, restore, and strengthen the Voting Rights Act. In December, Durbin and Senators Feinstein (D-CA), Ernst (R-IA), and Murkowski reached a deal on a bipartisan framework to modernize and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, announcing that they will introduce a bill in January.
In recent years, the American people have raised their voices to call for long-overdue criminal justice reform. As Chair of this Committee, Durbin has answered that call. He and Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA)—the lead sponsors of the landmark First Step Act (FSA)—introduced the bipartisan First Step Implementation Act, the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act, and the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2021, legislation that aims to build on the FSA and continue Congress’s bipartisan efforts to make our criminal justice system fairer. The Committee voted to advance these bills in May and June. Alongside Senator Booker (D-NJ), Durbin introduced the EQUAL Act to finally eliminate the federal crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity, followed by a June hearing.
Finally, none of these accomplishments would be possible without the hard work and support of our distinguished dais of Democratic leaders: Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chris Coons (D-DE), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Alex Padilla (D-CA), and Jon Ossoff (D-GA).
To you and yours: Happy holidays and a joyous New Year!