White House senior counsel Paige Herwig, who has been a driving force behind President Joe Biden’s success in diversifying the nation’s federal courts, is leaving her post.
Herwig is headed to another role in the administration, HuffPost has learned. She will be making the move in the next several weeks.
Herwig has been in the counsel’s office since day one of Biden’s presidency, making her the longest-serving team leader there. She’s a big reason why Biden’s judicial nominations are among his signature accomplishments. She’s been overseeing the White House’s aggressive strategy for selecting, nominating and confirming his judges.
The president has confirmed 126 people to lifetime federal judgeships during his tenure, which is more than his three predecessors — Donald Trump (104), Barack Obama (83) and George W. Bush (124) — had confirmed by this point in their presidencies.
This includes 93 district court judges, 32 appeals court judges and one Supreme Court justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson.
“Paige is a phenomenal lawyer, leader, and person, who led the nominations team in Counsel’s Office with the utmost grace and skill,” said former White House counsel Dana Remus, who served with Herwig for most of her tenure.
Beyond sheer numbers, Biden has infused badly needed diversity onto the nation’s mostly white, mostly male federal bench. Sixty-six percent of his nominees are women, and 70% of the judges who have been confirmed are women. Sixty-five percent of his nominees are people of color, and 64% of the judges that have been confirmed are people of color.
“Paige is the unsung hero of one of the administration’s most critical achievements — appointing a record number of federal judges with record diversity by race and gender and professional experience,” said former White House chief of staff Ron Klain, who also served with Herwig for most of her tenure. “None of this would have happened without Paige’s legal acumen and legislative savvy.”
Herwig’s legwork has also led to a number of historic firsts in terms of who Biden has put onto the courts. These include the first Muslim American federal judge, the first two openly LGBTQ women to serve as U.S. circuit court judges, a spike in Hispanic and Asian American representation on the courts, and 12 Black women being confirmed as circuit court judges ― more than all past presidents combined.
That’s in addition to Biden confirming a record number of public defenders to circuit court seats, a shift from the more traditional corporate lawyers tapped for these jobs.
When the history books are written, Biden will get credit for putting these people into lifetime seats on the federal bench. Democrats may get a footnote for confirming them in the Senate. Herwig probably won’t be mentioned at all. But she’s been leading the behind-the-scenes work of picking and vetting all of them in the first place, and lining up public support for these people so they’ll have a (hopefully) smooth path ahead in the Senate from the moment the president makes their nominations official.
“Paige is equal parts brilliant and relentless,” said White House chief of staff Jeff Zients.
“From day one of the Biden-Harris transition, Paige crafted an aggressive strategy to confirm the most diverse and impressive judicial nominees in history,” he continued.
Progressives hailed Biden when he tapped Herwig for the role in January 2021, namely because she is one of them and they know Herwig from her previous jobs.
In addition to serving on the Biden-Harris transition team, Herwig was chief nominations counsel for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) when she was the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking member. Herwig was also counselor to former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and special assistant to Obama, focused on judicial nominations.
Prior to those jobs, Herwig was chief of staff and senior counsel at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy during the Obama administration. She also served as deputy chief counsel for Demand Justice, a progressive judicial advocacy group.
When Biden unveiled his first, much-anticipated batch of judicial nominations in March 2021, Herwig and her team were the ones who spent months pulling that group together. The batch included the highest number of Black female circuit court nominees ever put forward at once (three), and a mix of professionally and demographically diverse picks from New Jersey, Maryland, Colorado and New Mexico.
Herwig was also key in ushering Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination through the Senate in 2022. She sat in the Senate balcony during the confirmation vote, and when Jackson made remarks on the White House South Lawn a few days later, she gave a specific shoutout to Herwig.
“I am ... particularly grateful for the awe-inspiring leadership of White House Counsel Dana Remus. Of Paige Herwig,” Jackson said to applause. “Where is Paige?”
Herwig’s departure comes at a pivotal moment for Biden’s judicial nominations.
The White House has spent the past two years focused largely on filling court vacancies in states led by Democratic senators, which has made it easier to select and confirm nominees supported by everyone. But now, with vacancies building up in states led by Republican senators, it’s not as simple to nominate people who everyone can agree on. Some GOP senators may not want to help the White House pick anyone, hoping to hold out for a future Republican president who will go with more conservative candidates.
Beyond that, Republicans have been taking advantage of a courtesy in the Senate Judiciary Committee to block Biden’s court picks. The courtesy, known as the “blue slip rule,” asks that a senator turn in a blue slip of paper as a show of support for advancing a judicial nominee from that senator’s home state. If both of a nominee’s home-state senators turn in their blue slips, they get a hearing. If only one turns in a blue slip, or neither does, the nominee doesn’t get a hearing.
Republicans haven’t been turning in blue slips for many of Biden’s court picks, effectively killing their nominations. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the chair of the committee, noted in a recent hearing that Democrats had turned in 110 blue slips during the Trump administration. So far in the Biden administration, Republicans have signed 17.
Some Republicans appear to be refusing to work with the White House at all to fill court vacancies in their states. A recent letter from progressive groups to Durbin indicates that out of 45 current district court vacancies subject to GOP blue slips, 41 don’t have nominees in the queue.
It’s on Durbin to decide whether to keep the blue slip rule in place. Progressive groups have been pressuring him to drop it so Biden’s court picks can get moving again, but so far he’s held firm in keeping the tradition. The White House counsel’s office doesn’t have any control over this, and it’s not about to pressure Durbin to drop the blue slip rule. But the logjam certainly puts pressure on the White House to cut deals with GOP senators so judicial nominees from their states will have their support from the start, versus nominating people that Republicans may not like and watching them get jammed in the committee.
The White House counsel’s office will have to navigate all of these dynamics without Herwig. White House counsel Stuart Delery said her absence will be felt.
“Paige’s deep experience and knowledge of the nominations process has been a driving force behind the President’s historic record and breadth of judicial confirmations,“ Delery said in a statement. “Her commitment to ensuring that our federal bench contains highly qualified candidates who reflect the diversity of the country has been an incredible asset to the White House. She will be greatly missed.”