Trump’s Federal Judge Appointments and Why They Matter
At a press conference last month, Trump bragged about his high number of federal judicial appointments. Since taking office in January, 2017, he has appointed more federal judges than almost any other president at the same point in their first term (1). These positions, in both federal district and appeals courts, are often overlooked. But like Supreme Court justices, these judges are granted lifetime appointments. On average, Trump’s nominees are younger and more outwardly conservative than those appointed by previous presidents (2). Though Amy Coney Barrett’s imminent confirmation as Trump’s third Supreme Court Justice pick is hard to swallow, his 194 other federal court appointments, as of July, should be equally unsettling.
Federal Judges in the United States
Under Article III of the Constitution, the president in office has the ability to nominate new judges for the federal circuit and district courts. They must receive approval from the Senate before confirmation and can only be removed from office through impeachment by the House of Representatives with conviction by the Senate. Throughout the United States, there are 94 district courts and 12 federal circuits. Of these, the federal circuits, also known as the appeals courts, are especially important.
Because the Supreme Court focuses on issues pertaining to federal law or multiple states, the vast majority of cases end at the federal appeals court (2). This means that federal circuit judges have the final say in most situations
Cases on the appeals court are decided by a panel of three randomly assigned judges from the circuit where they are argued. These courts do not utilize juries, furthering the judicial influence of the circuit judges (2).
There are currently about 800 working federal judges throughout the nation. Of these, nearly 200 were appointed during Trump’s presidency (1). Trump’s rapid series of appointments was made possible by Mitch McConnell and other Senate Republicans, who obstructed the appointment of new judges under the Obama administration. Once Trump came into office, McConnell rapidly commenced confirmations of Trump’s nominees in order to fill the vacancies he had let pile up (3).
Compared to federal judges appointed by past presidents, Trumps’ are far less politically and ethnically diverse. He has appointed fewer judges from minority backgrounds than any Republican or Democratic president in the past thirty years, and not one of his nominees has been black. Furthermore, though Trump has appointed more female judges — including Amy Coney Barrett, whom he nominated to the appeals court in 2017 — than his Republican predecessors, he has appointed far fewer than Obama — 25% versus 45% of total appointments (1).
Of the federal judges appointed under the Trump administration thus far, 7 of 10 are white men (3).
Two other striking features of Trump’s nominees are their age and political agenda. Whereas under one fifth of Bush appointees and just one twentieth of Obama appointees were under 45 years old, nearly one third of judges appointed by Trump fall into that age category. This statistic reflects a strategic pattern on the part of the White House and Senate Republicans — because federal judges are appointed for life, younger nominees will serve for longer, regardless of when Democrats regain control of the White House. This is alarming considering the large number of appointments Trump has squeezed into just one term.
Also alarming is the increasingly conservative ideologies espoused by judges appointed under the Trump administration. All but eight of Trump’s nominees, as of July, had ties to the Federalist Society, a far right group once considered to lie on the fringes of U.S. politics. Don R. Willett, confirmed to the federal appeals court in 2018, for instance, once said that as a judge on the Texas Supreme Court, he would “build such a fiercely conservative record on the court that I will be un-confirmable for any future federal judicial post — and proudly so” (2). His assumption that his openly aggressive political agenda on a traditionally nonpartisan position would disqualify him for future appointment to a federal court indicates Trump’s and McConnell’s willingness to appoint openly biased judges in order to further their own political agenda.
The lack of consensus regarding recent appointments is as concerning as the new judges’ backgrounds. Several confirmations proceeded despite unfavorable ratings from the American Bar Association. Two thirds of these new judges failed to win the support of 60 senators, (a former requirement). Under a Democratic-controlled Senate, Republicans prevented nearly every confirmation of Obama’s nominees to the D.C. Circuit. Ironically, the 60 vote requirement was scrapped by Mitch McConnell during the Obama Administration. This means that Trump’s nominees have drawn three times more “no” votes in the Senate than all confirmed judges in the 20th century combined (2).
What we can do
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, among other politicians, has noted the lack of attention Americans pay to the lower federal courts compared to the Supreme Court. Though they decide on more local issues, they have arguably more of a direct impact on citizens’ lives.
It’s not too late to halt the addition of far right nominees to the circuit and district courts.
The key is electing Democratic senators.
Flipping the Senate blue will give Democrats the final say on future federal court appointments, regardless of whether or not Biden wins the presidential election. Take a look at our list of female candidates for U.S. Senate in 2020. These women are vital to our nation’s future. Now that we have more far right judges in our federal courts than ever, it is crucial that we elect new Senators who advocate for new ones to genuinely reflect our nation’s population makeup and uphold the laws put forth by our government.
As we hurdle into the presidential election, it can be easy to forget about local elections. But, as is clear from federal court appointments over the past four years, voting Trump out isn’t enough. Here is a voting resource guide to help you navigate the election process.