WASHINGTON ― Senate Democrats just gave a huge gift to President Donald Trump: They agreed to expedite votes on 15 of his nominees to lifetime federal court seats because they wanted to go home.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) had lined up votes for all those district court nominees last week. Normally, Senate rules require up to 30 hours of waiting time for each nominee ― something Democrats typically take advantage of to delay action on confirming Trump judges. But Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) cut a deal with McConnell on Tuesday to bypass the wait times and let them all get through.
Why? So Democrats could get back to campaigning and focusing on winning re-election in November. The Senate is now out of session until next Tuesday.
Of the 15 nominees, six were confirmed by voice votes on Tuesday. Another one was confirmed on a recorded vote. The remaining eight will get quick votes next week.
It’s a major win for Trump and McConnell, whose No. 1 priority is filling up federal courts with conservative judges ― many of whom are incredibly anti-abortion, anti–LGBTQ rights and anti–voting rights. Trump has gotten 26 circuit court judges confirmed, more than any other president at this point in his term. Another way of putting it: 1 in 7 U.S. circuit court seats is now filled by a judge nominated by Trump.
Add that Trump put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court and is poised to get another justice through, Brett Kavanaugh, and you’ve got a president drastically reshaping the nation’s courts for generations.
Some progressives are furious that Democrats just handed more judges to Trump, particularly given recent revelations implicating the president in federal crimes. It would have taken only one Democratic senator to say “no” to letting the nominees through this week, but none did.
“Trading this many lifetime positions away for a couple days back home in the dead of August is a metaphor for how myopic the Democrats’ approach has been at this dark moment in history,” said Brian Fallon, who, awkwardly, was previously Schumer’s chief spokesperson. He is now the executive director of Demand Justice, a progressive judicial advocacy group.
“An entire branch of government is being lost for generations, and Senate Democrats are willfully blind to it,” Fallon said. “In the coming months and years, these same Democrats will issue outraged statements about the rulings issued by the very judges that they could not be bothered to try to slow down. It is pathetic.”
To be sure, confirming judges in itself is a good thing. Dozens of district courts have had vacancies for so long they’re operating at emergency levels, and it has left some of the judges on those courts overwhelmed and struggling with burnout.
But delaying action on Trump’s judges is one of the few ways Democrats can do something to push back on his agenda. They could have caused more trouble for McConnell by requiring recorded votes, too, since it takes at least 51 votes to advance any judicial nominee. Given that the partisan breakdown in the Senate is 50-49 and that McConnell has had attendance issues with his members, it’s easy to see some of these judicial nominees not getting through or at least being beset by delays.
“It is pathetic.”
McConnell was a master of delaying action on judicial nominees under President Barack Obama. McConnell leaned on every procedural tool in the book to delay or deny votes to Obama’s court picks ― including, of course, denying a confirmation hearing for his Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. Progressive groups desperately want Democrats to play a similar game of hardball, but it hasn’t happened.
“Requiring the full amount of process and debate on every judge helps slow things down to prevent the worst of the worst of the Trump judges from speeding through down the line,” said Elizabeth Beavers, an associate policy director at Indivisible, a progressive advocacy group.
Adam Jentleson, a top aide to former Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who preceded Schumer as minority leader before retiring in 2017, said the problem “comes down to leadership.”
A senior Senate Democratic aide pushed back on the idea that they caved, noting that most of the judges confirmed Tuesday had Democratic support and that some senators would rather be home on the campaign trail.
“These judges would be confirmed eventually,” said this aide, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “It could happen while members were in D.C., or back home trying to win a majority in the Senate. And yes, mostly noncontroversial judges with lots of [Democratic] support.”
He’s right that most of these district court nominees are uncontroversial. But one of them, Charles Goodwin, was rated “not qualified” to be a judge by the American Bar Association.
Six Democrats joined Republicans to confirm him anyway.