WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump has been bragging about all the lifetime federal judges he’s gotten confirmed so far. He should! It’s a lot.
Look at where Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush were at this point in their terms. Obama hadn’t confirmed nearly as many appeals court or district court judges. Bush had confirmed more district court judges by now, but Trump is way ahead of everyone on appeals court judges ― the people who have the final say in nearly all federal appeals cases around the country. Appeals courts resolve about 50,000 appeals cases per year; the Supreme Court resolves about 100.
Trump’s White House and Senate Republicans made a big push right out of the gate to confirm as many appeals court judges as possible precisely because of the concentrated power that rests with their courts. As a result, nearly 1 in every 4 seats on U.S. appeals courts is now filled by a judge appointed by Trump.
The quantity of Trump’s judges is almost as dramatic as the quality. Republicans have been confirming piles of unqualified and ideologically extreme people to lifetime court seats, many of whom have records of being anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ rights and anti-voting rights. In the meantime, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) keeps stripping away the few tools typically afforded to the minority, essentially shutting Democrats out of the process.
Since Trump took office, McConnell has blown up the Senate rules so Republicans could easily confirm the president’s Supreme Court picks. He forced another change in the rules to drastically reduce the amount of debate time for Trump’s district court picks. He’s routinely broken from Senate tradition by advancing judicial nominees over the objections of that nominee’s home-state senators.
And under his leadership, the GOP-led Judiciary Committee has stopped honoring “blue slips,” which means senators can no longer single-handedly block judicial nominees from their home states ― something Republicans did all the time when Obama was president.
So where does this leave Democrats? Surely there’s something these United States senators can do to prevent the president from putting problematic, out-of-the-mainstream people all over the nation’s courts.
Or ... not.
“We welcome any additional ideas,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “But we have to win. We have to win the Senate. This just highlights the loss in costs of not having the votes here.”
“We’re doing everything we can,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “If you care about the courts in our country and due process and justice, I’m hopeful we’ll have a different majority in January of 2021.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) offered his party a glimmer of hope. He boasted that he and fellow Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) successfully tanked appeals court nominee Ryan Bounds last year. Bounds hadn’t disclosed some of his previous racist writings to a bipartisan state judicial commission, and Wyden and Merkley highlighted this to GOP colleagues weighing his confirmation. At the last minute, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) helped bring down Bounds.
“Sen. Merkley and I have laid out for the Senate a pretty good example of how you stop extreme nominees,” Wyden said. “Do your homework. Get the facts out. And make sure your colleagues get to see it in time.”
CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to say that federal appeals court judges have the final say in nearly all federal appeals cases, not all federal cases.