Biden Judges Making an Impact

Biden Judges Making an Impact: Candace Jackson-Akiwumi

July 28, 2023

United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

Confirmed June 24, 2021

Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi swore her oath of office on July 1, 2021, becoming only the second Black woman to serve on the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which covers Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Judge Jackson-Akiwumi was born in Norfolk, Virginia, to a family of jurists. As both of her parents were judges, it was both fate and passion that led Judge Jackson-Akiwumi to pursue a legal career. A graduate of Princeton University, Judge Jackson-Akiwumi attended Yale Law School, where she assisted a legal team that challenged a death row inmate’s sentence all the way to the Supreme Court, ultimately succeeding on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim.  

After law school, Judge Jackson-Akiwumi clerked twice: first for Judge David H. Coar of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and then for Judge Roger Gregory of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. After clerking, she joined the Chicago office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, where she litigated complex civil cases involving contracts, patents, securities, and tax disputes. After those three years in private practice, Judge Jackson-Akiwumi joined the federal defender program for the Northern District of Illinois, where she remained for 10 years. There, she represented indigent people from across northern Illinois accused of federal crimes. From 2020 to 2021, until her nomination to the Seventh Circuit by President Biden, Jackson-Akiwumi served as a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP.

Since joining the federal bench, Judge Jackson-Akiwumi has been a tireless champion of equal justice. In Jarnutowski v. Kijakazi, Jackson-Akiwumi authored an opinion that gave Donna Jarnutowski, a plaintiff, another opportunity to prove that she has a disability that prevented her from returning to her old job. She reversed the decision below, noting that the lower court judge had determined without adequate explanation that after additional surgery Jarnutowski could “lift or carry objects more than twice the weight” of those she could lift before the surgery. Taking care to examine the details, the Seventh Circuit panel, led by Jackson-Akiwumi, determined that the administrative law judge failed to “build a ‘logical bridge’ from the evidence” to the conclusion and gave Ms. Jarnutowski another chance to prove her disability claims. Judge Michael Brennan, appointed by President Trump, dissented and would have upheld the denial of the worker’s disability claims.  

Her compelling analysis and thoughtful decisions demonstrate the importance of both intellectual rigor and diversity— both in demographic and professional arenas.

In a second case, one involving racial discrimination, Jackson-Akiwumi authored a decision that gave an African-American couple, the only people of color in their Indiana community, the opportunity to prove their claim of racial discrimination in the context of housing to a jury. The couple, the Watters, had sued the Homeowners’ Association and several of its members for race discrimination and failure to accommodate Terence Watters’s post-traumatic stress disorder under the Fair Housing Act and 42 U.S.C.§ 1982. The evidence in the case revealed significant harassment against Tonca and Terence Watters, including the president of the homeowners’ association directing racist slurs at the couple. Yet the lower court had granted summary judgment in favor of all defendants on all counts. The Seventh Circuit vacated that judgment, ensuring the couple would be able to bring their case before a jury. Judge Amy St. Eve, appointed by President Trump, dissented and would have upheld the dismissal of the Watters’ complaint.  

Judge Jackson-Akiwumi is one of only two women of color on the Seventh Circuit today. She is also the court’s first former federal public defender. Her compelling analysis and thoughtful decisions demonstrate the importance of both intellectual rigor and diversity— both in demographic and professional arenas. This diversity is essential to achieving true equity in and through the justice system and yet still all too uncommon. The Associated Press reported that more than 86 percent of the more than 200 federal judges confirmed under Trump were white, the highest rate of white judicial appointments since George H.W. Bush’s presidency. Judge Jackson-Akiwumi’s appointment, among others, and her time on the bench prove the significance of President Biden’s commitment to ensuring that those who reside on the federal bench reflect the people who make up America.