Jamal Whitehead, a trial lawyer from Seattle, has become the first judicial nominee under President Joe Biden with a disclosed disability to be confirmed as a US District Court judge. Whitehead, who uses a prosthetic leg, has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support. He will be one of only a few judges among the 870 life-tenured federal judges who are open about living with a disability. This confirmation is an essential step towards greater representation of those with disabilities in the judiciary, which currently lacks diversity.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a quarter of US adults have a disability. Advocates and judges have emphasized that adding more judges with disabilities and promoting disclosure would help the courts become more reflective of the US population and provide a unique perspective on cases. However, it can be challenging to encourage the disclosure of disabilities among judges and lawyers.
The National Employment Lawyer Association has praised Whitehead’s nomination in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, stating that he brings a “depth of experience on employment matters” and “much-needed demographic diversity” to the Seattle-based court as “a Black man with a disability.” Disability groups who have worked with Whitehead have praised his litigation experience, which includes multimillion-dollar class action settlements.
Whitehead graduated from the University of Washington and the Seattle University School of Law, starting his legal career as an associate at a Seattle law firm. Before joining the local US attorney’s office, he worked as a trial attorney in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Seattle field office. Since 2016, Whitehead has worked at Schroeter Goldmark & Bender in Seattle, focusing on employment law and tort-based matters in suits filed by individual plaintiffs or in class actions. He has also served on the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington board.
Whitehead has won several notable cases during his legal career. In one instance, he secured a $5 million jury verdict for an employee fired after they started using a prosthetic voice box due to vocal cord cancer treatment. Disability groups have commended Whitehead’s commitment to ensuring fair treatment for those with disabilities.
Christopher M. Sanders, a lawyer, and Whitehead’s mentor, highlighted his experience overcoming a disability in a letter to the Judiciary Committee. Sanders emphasized the importance of having judges who bring such perspectives to the bench, as they can better understand the challenges faced by the people who come before them.
In 1995, the Seattle Times featured a story about Whitehead as part of a teen community service project, stating, “Remember this name: Jamal Whitehead. He plans to be your president someday.” While Whitehead’s political aspirations may have changed, his US District Court judge confirmation has made history. It is a significant step toward increasing the representation of those with disabilities in the judiciary.