Clyburn Pushes His Pick for Supreme Court, Testing His Sway With Biden

WASHINGTON — Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina was already picturing Judge J. Michelle Childs sitting on the Supreme Court bench in early 2020 when he suggested Joseph R. Biden Jr. could revive his faltering presidential campaign by pledging to nominate the first Black woman to serve there.

Mr. Biden did so, paving the way for an endorsement from Mr. Clyburn ahead of the South Carolina primary that was a critical turning point in the race. In the months since the election, Mr. Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat and the highest-ranking Black member of Congress, has not been shy about taking his share of credit for Mr. Biden’s victory and trying to exert influence on the president’s policy and personnel choices.

Now, Mr. Clyburn is mounting an aggressive campaign to persuade Mr. Biden to nominate Judge Childs, a district court judge in his home state of South Carolina, to succeed Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who is retiring. It is a blatant effort to call in a political favor in the form of a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court and, perhaps, the most consequential test yet of the Biden-Clyburn relationship.

“I make my case, I share my views, sometimes my feelings, and then I go on,” Mr. Clyburn, 81, said in a recent interview, describing how he uses his sway with Mr. Biden. This time, he is going all out, and irking some of the president’s allies in the process.

Within hours of Mr. Breyer’s retirement announcement, Mr. Clyburn held a conference call with South Carolina reporters, stating that Judge Childs’s humble background — she attended large public universities on scholarships, earning her undergraduate degree at the University of South Florida and law and business degrees at the University of South Carolina — would better represent the country than another justice with an Ivy League pedigree. (Ketanji Brown Jackson, another top contender, has two degrees from Harvard, while a third, Leondra R. Kruger, has one from Harvard and one from Yale.)

Allies in South Carolina immediately began emailing talking points to potentially helpful surrogates, noting that Judge Childs was “rooted in the African American community,” a member of Delta Sigma Theta, the prestigious Black sorority, and a member of the oldest Black Catholic church in Columbia.

Over the past week, Mr. Clyburn has plugged her case on television and noted that she had the backing of Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. On Wednesday, he and Mr. Graham had breakfast in the Senate dining room with Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, to discuss, among other issues, Judge Childs and how to make a bipartisan case for her nomination. Mr. Graham posted a picture on Twitter of the three men smiling.

“It’s good for the country to have the court look more like America,” Mr. Graham said afterward. He said he had told the White House that Judge Childs, who is regarded as more moderate than other candidates Mr. Biden is thought to be considering, “would draw some Republican support.”

At the White House, Mr. Clyburn has been talking her up to the president since a few days after Inauguration Day, although he said he had not spoken to Mr. Biden about Judge Childs since Mr. Breyer’s retirement announcement. It was Mr. Clyburn who urged the president to nominate her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which is considered a feeder to the Supreme Court. Mr. Biden announced in December that he would do so.

“He’s just determined,” said Representative G.K. Butterfield, Democrat of North Carolina, said of Mr. Clyburn. “He wants a pick who is racially and geographically diverse, whose views reflect the mainstream of the American people.”

The result has been the kind of pressure campaign that longtime Biden aides say can sometimes backfire. Mr. Biden recoils at being lobbied through the television. And there is sensitivity among some of his allies and former aides that his selection must look like the president’s own historic pick, not like a political chit he owes to Mr. Clyburn.

Mr. Clyburn, left, received his diploma from Mr. Biden at the South Carolina State University’s commencement ceremony in December.Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

But for Mr. Biden, a believer in sticking with the people who helped him get to where he is, Mr. Clyburn, a friend of many decades, still enjoys a special status.

“I’d almost walk to South Carolina to be able to do that for Jim,” Mr. Biden said when he visited South Carolina in December to give the commencement speech at his alma mater, South Carolina State University. Mr. Clyburn, who received his diploma by mail when he graduated in 1961, walked with the graduates and received his diploma from Mr. Biden.

“When it comes to the Black community in general, Jim Clyburn is on that short list of people he will always call,” Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist, said.

Mr. Clyburn is an old-school Southern politician perhaps better known for his annual fish fry, which draws most of the Democratic presidential candidates every four years, than he is for his role as House whip. He is a natural political operator who cultivates press coverage, values loyalty and understands how to press an advantage when he can.

Over the decades when they overlapped in Congress, Mr. Biden and Mr. Clyburn often played golf and appeared together on Charlie Rose’s talk show. They first bonded over the fact that one of the cases in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that held that segregating schools was unconstitutional, was from South Carolina and another was from Mr. Biden’s home state of Delaware.

“We spent time talking about the similarities of these cases,” Mr. Clyburn recalled of their early conversations.

When Mr. Biden drew criticism during the 2020 campaign for boasting of his work with segregationist Democrats in the 1970s, Mr. Clyburn was there to defend him.

Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, said that Mr. Clyburn’s advocacy must be looked at in light of how he “basically resurrected” Mr. Biden’s presidential campaign.

“I think Joe Biden has to listen to him,” he said.

The White House has downplayed the influence of any single voice in the selection of a nominee, but has confirmed that Judge Childs is being considered.

“The president’s focus is not on gaming out the process; it’s on picking the right candidate,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said at a briefing this week when asked about Mr. Clyburn and Mr. Graham’s coordinated campaign.

Mr. Clyburn said he was aware that the administration would not always heed his advice. But that has not deterred him from pushing.

He lobbied successfully for his longtime friend Marcia L. Fudge to join the president’s cabinet, for Shalanda Young to be chosen as director of the Office of Management and Budget and for Jaime Harrison, a former South Carolina representative, to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

He has also tried to expand his role as a kingmaker, inserting himself into a party primary in Ohio to boost a more moderate candidate over a progressive acolyte of Senator Bernie Sanders. His chosen candidate won, but his involvement angered some on the left, underscoring the ideological divide among Democrats between establishment veterans in Congress and a progressive new generation that is increasingly challenging them.

Judge Childs’s potential nomination has also drawn pushback from some progressives and labor activists, who have flagged her work as a lawyer representing employers opposing unionization drives.

In terms of policy, he and his congressional allies credit Mr. Clyburn with pushing for the “10-20-30 formula,” which directs investments to poverty-stricken communities, to be included in the president’s budget request. They also give him credit for pressing for more money for broadband in the infrastructure law.

Mr. Clyburn, never a shrinking violet, goes further.

“It was yours truly who made broadband an infrastructure issue,” he said. “The White House has supported me with all these issues.”

Judge Childs with Mr. Clyburn, who has said her background would better represent the country than another justice with an Ivy League pedigree.Credit…Chip Somodevilla/Getty Image

Mr. Clyburn also takes credit for Mr. Biden’s pledge to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court, though others say he played only a partial role.

“I decided that Joe Biden needed to do something that would demonstrate a high level of respect for Black women,” he said. “What higher level of respect can there be?”

Biden campaign aides recall things slightly differently. It was Ms. Fudge, they said, who first raised the issue of making the pledge to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court during a meeting Mr. Biden held with members of the Congressional Black Caucus aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown in Charleston, S.C.

During the meeting, the group, which included Mr. Clyburn, had a frank conversation with Mr. Biden about the state of his campaign.

“We said, ‘If you really want to be the nominee, you’re going to have to do something dramatic,’” Mr. Thompson recalled. “If you don’t win the debate, and ultimately the Saturday primary, it’s over.”

Ms. Fudge then told Mr. Biden he needed to find a forum where he would pledge to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court. Mr. Clyburn and Mr. Thompson agreed.

“We left there with the impression that he was going to do it,” Mr. Thompson said.

Some of Mr. Biden’s advisers, however, thought making such a pledge on the debate stage would be viewed as pandering to Black voters. In a debate preparation session, Symone D. Sanders, a former top aide who is Black, said she did not think it was a good idea.

But Mr. Biden ultimately made the pledge, and Mr. Clyburn’s endorsement soon followed.

The White House has not always accommodated his requests. He originally pushed for Ms. Fudge to be nominated as agriculture secretary, but she ended up as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Mr. Clyburn remains optimistic that Mr. Biden will choose Judge Childs and that he will have had a hand in the selection of a groundbreaking Supreme Court nominee.

But even if Judge Childs does not get the nod, Mr. Clyburn’s allies said he had already made his mark on the process.

“At 81, as his career nears an end, his legacy is for the most part written, but you can always add accouterments,” said Bakari Sellers, a Democratic strategist and former member of the South Carolina legislature. “You can’t mention the first Black female on the Supreme Court without mentioning the name Jim Clyburn.”

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