Late Thursday, with little fanfare, President Joe Biden withdrew 32 nominations from the Senate that former President Donald Trump put forward in his final days in office.
There were all kinds of nominations in the mix. One nominee was up for inspector general for the Federal Communications Commission. A couple of nominees were up for being ambassadors to the Bahamas and Singapore. Judy Shelton was Trump’s pick to take now-Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s seat on the Federal Reserve.
And two nominees were for lifetime federal judgeships, which Trump may have been hoping could slip through to confirmation. Biden just made it clear that’s not happening.
It’s pretty routine for an incoming president to toss out a defeated president’s last-minute nominations. But the fact that Biden sent back both of Trump’s judicial picks is a sign that he isn’t ceding any ground when it comes to filling lifetime federal court seats ― not after Trump and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) spent the last four years focused on confirming more than 230 mostly young, male, white, right-wing judges.
One of Trump’s court picks may have even passed the Senate with strong support. His appeals court nominee, Raúl Arias-Marxuach, was overwhelmingly confirmed by the Senate in May 2019 when he was up for a U.S. district court seat, by a vote of 93 to 2. But Biden is sending the message that he will be picking his own judicial nominees going forward, thank you very much.
Trump’s other last-minute nominee to a lifetime court seat, Edmund LaCour, Jr., likely never stood a chance of advancing under the Biden administration. LaCour, who was up for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, has a record of being hostile to voting rights, abortion rights, environmental protection and gun safety.
Biden hasn’t announced any of his judicial nominees yet. But behind the scenes, his White House team has signaled they aren’t wasting any time lining up court picks.
White House counsel Dana Remus wrote to Democratic senators in December urging them to send over recommendations for district court judges “as soon as possible,” and gave a hard deadline of Jan. 19. Biden’s team has also indicated they won’t wait for the American Bar Association to evaluate his court picks before formally nominating them, another sign that they’re ready to move quickly with nominations.
Biden himself knows the judicial nomination process extremely well, as a former longtime chairman and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. That’s in addition to being vice president for eight years under President Barack Obama, and having people on his team who worked for Obama as he vetted and ushered through his own judicial nominations.
As of Friday, Biden has 52 district court vacancies and four appeals court vacancies to fill ― numbers that will only continue to grow. These are all lifetime posts.
Since he took office, a wave of federal judges has announced retirement plans. While judges in lifetime seats have personal reasons for retiring when they do, it’s safe to say, for the most part, that the timing of these judges’ departures isn’t coincidental: They wanted Biden to pick their replacements, not Trump.