By Khorri Atkinson
(September 21, 2021, 5:27 PM EDT) -- The U.S. Senate voted along largely partisan lines Tuesday to confirm President Joe Biden's selection of a civil rights and criminal defense attorney for a long-vacant lifetime judgeship at the District of New Mexico.
Margaret Strickland, who formerly worked at the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender, won confirmation by a vote of 52-45 that saw Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska joining all Democrats present in support.
Strickland was on Biden's first slate of 11 judicial nominees announced in March, and her confirmation comes as the White House is making an unprecedented push for race, gender and professional diversity on the federal bench across the country. She's also one of a growing number of criminal defense lawyers Biden is naming to the federal judiciary's ranks amid objections from Republicans who complain about their weak civil litigation expertise.
During a May confirmation hearing, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said "there's nothing wrong with being a criminal-defense attorney" as they provide legal service to "protect their clients' constitutional rights." But he rebuked liberal groups like Demand Justice he argued "have made it clear that's not what they want. They seem to think that these criminal-defense judges will defund the police from the bench."
The advocacy organization, founded by two veterans of the Obama administration, has been pushing the Biden White House to look beyond BigLaw for judicial candidates and not to select former prosecutors or corporate attorneys who they say too often align with conservative interests.
Strickland told Grassley at the May hearing that she had spoken two or three times with Demand Justice leader Christopher Kang.
The nominee also insisted that she knows the difference between an advocate's role and that of a judge, who must "approach every case neutrally, deliberately putting aside any personal opinions in order to fairly consider the facts, the law and any arguments from counsel."
Strickland had started McGraw & Strickland LLC in 2011 after her five-year stint as a state public defender. Her firm biography calls her "Your Voice Against Police Brutality" and noted that she won a $1.6 million jury verdict in a civil rights case against Las Cruces, New Mexico, police officers.
At her confirmation hearing, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., took Strickland to task over her views on qualified immunity, the 50-year-old U.S. Supreme Court doctrine that limits private civil rights suits against government officials including police officers. Kennedy said she had "spent [her] entire adult career arguing against qualified immunity."
Strickland told the lawmaker she would not apply her personal views while on the bench, but Kennedy insisted she would.
"You're going to do everything you can to undermine qualified immunity, aren't you?" he asked.
"No, senator, qualified immunity is the law of the land … and I would apply it," the nominee replied. "I do believe, senator, in qualified immunity. It is the law of this country."
Ahead of Tuesday's vote, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said on the floor that Strickland "is a highly qualified nominee with the right experience, temperament and disposition to be a fair-minded district court judge."
"She has spent her entire professional career working in the community in which she will sit," the senator added. "She knows intimately the impact the legal system has on everyday Americans and she understands that serving as a judge is very different from serving as an advocate."
The Las Cruces-based judgeship Biden selected Strickland for has been vacant since July 2018 when U.S. District Judge Robert Brack, a George W. Bush appointee, assumed senior status. This was also one of the 26 vacancies then-President Donald Trump lost his shot to fill in January after lawmakers voted to certify Biden's presidential victory and then went on recess. Trump had selected Fred J. Federici, a Venable LLP alum and a top federal prosecutor in the state, for the post.
Strickland earned degrees from the University of Texas at El Paso and New York University School of Law. She started her career at the Las Cruces Office of the New Mexico Public Defender and then started her own firm, representing indigent defendants in federal court.