GOP criticizes Biden judicial nominee's defense of death row inmate

Arianna Freeman
Arianna Freeman, a nominee to serve as a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, appears before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on March 2, 2022, in Washington, D.C. U.S. Senate/Handout via REUTERS
  • Arianna Freeman would be first Black woman judge on 3rd Circuit
  • President Joe Biden's judicial nominees include 23 current or former public defenders

(Reuters) - A public defender nominated by President Joe Biden to serve on a federal appeals court was criticized by Senate Republicans on Wednesday for helping successfully overturn a death row inmate's sentence, calling her a "zealot" for fighting capital punishment.

Democrats on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in response praised Arianna Freeman's advocacy for indigent defendants as the panel weighed her nomination to become the first Black woman judge on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

She is one of 23 nominees with experience as a public defender that Biden has tapped for the federal bench – a record number, stemming from Biden's push to increase not just the racial and gender diversity of judges but also to draw nominees from a wider array of professional backgrounds.

Freeman, a lawyer at the Federal Community Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania since 2009, said she believed "the justice system works best when both sides have quality representation."

Her work as a court-appointed defense lawyer opened her up to opposition from Republicans, including one of her two home-state senators, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who refused to return a so-called "blue slip" backing her.

Toomey believes Freeman has credentials in just a "very niche area of the law" and lacks the necessary "breadth of experience" for the role, a spokesperson said.

His support, though, is not needed as Democratic Committee Chairman Dick Durbin of Illinois is following a policy GOP senators adopted in the Trump era of not requiring "blue slips" for circuit court picks. He said she had "extraordinary experience."

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican, labeled Freeman a "zealot against the death penalty" as he and others criticized her advocacy for a Pennsylvania death row inmate whose sentence the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately overturned in 2016.

Freeman did not argue the Supreme Court appeal for Terrance Williams, who was convicted of a 1984 murder, but was on the team handling his federal habeas corpus challenge to his state-court death sentence.

Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri cited "extremely disturbing" claims in a concurring opinion now-retired Pennsylvania Supreme Court chief justice Ronald Castille issued when his court upheld Williams' sentence that claimed Freeman's office pursued an "obstructionist anti-death penalty agenda."

Freeman remarked "that was his opinion."

The U.S. Supreme Court's own decision had been based on the failure by Castille, a Republican who prosecuted Williams as Philadelphia's district attorney before joining Pennsylvania's high court, to step aside from hearing Williams' appeal.

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at