The U.S. Senate has approved the nomination of civil rights attorney Tana Lin to one of five vacancies on the federal bench in Western Washington, making her the first Asian American and first former public defender appointed to a lifelong term as a federal judge in the state.
Lin’s approval by the Senate on Thursday means that President Joe Biden has filled three of five vacancies on the seven-member federal bench in Western Washington with candidates from diverse backgrounds. Already serving is Judge David Estudillo, a former Grant County judge and the son of Mexican immigrants, and Judge Lauren King, a Native American and member of the Oklahoma-based Muskogee Tribe who was confirmed earlier this month.
Lin’s nomination drew praise from legal experts, politicians and civil libertarians alike.
“Biden has been emphasizing diversity and thinking in terms of experiential diversity on the courts, and that’s great,” said Professor Carl Tobias, who holds the Williams Chair in Law at the University of Richmond in Virginia. “These are groundbreaking appointments in your state and the nation as a whole.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell noted that “Western Washington has one of the largest populations of Asian Americans in our country, and it is important that our federal bench reflects the diversity of our state.”
Lin’s appointment to the federal bench is unconventional in other ways. She is the first former federal public defender appointed to be a federal judge in the district. Lin was president of the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
“Americans deserve a justice system that will uphold the rights of everyone, not just the wealthy and well-connected,” said Sen. Patty Murray, who recommended Lin to Biden as a judicial candidate. “Building a more fair and just court system starts by appointing more public defenders and more civil rights lawyers — like Ms. Lin — as judges.”
The 55-year-old Lin helped challenge former President Donald Trump’s travel ban and has represented workers in employment discrimination cases, including immigrant farmworkers in Washington state who were cheated out of wages.
“With a lifetime of dedicated public service as a poverty lawyer, a public defender, and a federal civil rights lawyer, Tana Lin is exactly the kind of person we need on the federal bench,” said Rakim Brooks, the president of the Alliance for Justice, a consortium of more than 100 civil-liberties advocate organizations.
The Western District of Washington is allotted seven federal judgeships but until last month had been operating with two judges. The other five spots have been filled by senior judges, who maintain their status but usually work lightened caseloads.
Tobias said only the “courageous and heroic” efforts of the district’s senior judges have kept the state’s federal judicial system afloat. He noted that the shortfall existed throughout the entire Trump administration, which did not nominate a single judge for the district.
Before her judicial appointment Thursday, Lin was of counsel at the Seattle offices of Keller Rohrback, where she practiced in the complex litigation group, working on cases involving the rights of employees, consumers and shareholders.
Lin served as a cooperating attorney for the ACLU in its successful challenge of the Trump administration’s travel ban, obtaining a nationwide injunction preventing the enforcement of the policy. Lin has also worked pro bono for Columbia Legal Services and the Lawyers Fostering Independence Program, according to Murray’s office.
Lin began her legal career at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and later worked as a trial attorney in the Employment Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.
After leaving the DOJ, Lin enforced federal anti-discrimination laws at the Chicago District Office of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and then spent three years on a range of equal justice projects at the Michigan Poverty Law Program before moving to Seattle to join Keller Rohrback.
Lin immigrated from Taiwan when she was 3 years old, speaking only Mandarin at home before she enrolled in school. She attended Cornell University and New York University School of Law, working multiple jobs during both college and law school.
Lin will replace senior U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman.