Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor is one of many women and people of color whom President Obama has appointed to the federal bench. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

President Obama might not be able to place a third justice on the Supreme Court, if Republicans in the Senate insist on keeping the late Antonin Scalia's chair vacant until Obama's successor takes office next year. Whether or not a nomination eventually goes to a vote, though, it's worth keeping in mind that Obama has already had a profound influence on the federal judiciary.

Until the Democrats lost control of the Senate, Obama was able to give unprecedented numbers of women and people of color seats on the federal bench.

"I think there are some particular groups that historically have been underrepresented—like Latinos and Asian-Americans—that represent a larger and larger portion of the population," the president told The New Yorker in 2014. "For them to be able to see folks in robes that look like them is going to be important."

Speaking at the close of the ASEAN summit, President Obama answered a question about the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by Justice Antonin Scalia's death. (Reuters)

Obama has doubled the number of women receiving federal judgeships. Forty-one percent of his appointees to federal district courts have been female, compared to 21 percent of President George W. Bush's appointees and 28 percent of President Clinton's.


Clinton appointed the first openly gay federal judge. Obama has appointed 11 more.

Those figures are drawn from a recent study by the Ohio State University's Elliot Slotnick, Sheldon Goldman of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Sara Schiavoni of John Carroll University.

"It's a real accomplishment," Goldman said in an interview, calling Obama's judiciary appointments "one of his major legacies -- there's no question about it."

Just 38 percent of district judges appointed by Obama have been white men. Under Bush, the figure was 67 percent, and under Clinton, it was 52 percent. By contrast, under President Reagan, fully 85 percent of judges appointed to district courts were white men.


The figures compiled by Goldman and his co-authors also reveal biographical differences among the appointees by race and gender. The women and people of color Obama named to the bench were much less likely to have been recruited from the private sector and somewhat more likely to have attended public colleges and law school.

They were also somewhat less affluent -- although Obama's appointees all were quite successful financially. Of the white, male appointees, 75 percent were worth more than $1 million, compared to just 63 percent of those who were not white and male.

While creating a more diverse judiciary, Obama has maintained rigorous standards for his appointees. Fifty-eight percent of the district judges he has appointed were rated "well qualified" by the American Bar Association's committee on the federal courts. The figure is similar for past presidents.

Obama's appointments haven't been more or less liberal than judges appointed by other Democratic presidents, according to an analysis by political scientists Robert Carp, Kenneth Manning and Ronald Stidham.

Yet Obama has given Democrats a narrow majority of seats on the federal bench. As recently as 2013, more Republicans than Democrats were sitting federal judges, both in the district courts and in the courts of appeal, Goldman and his colleagues found.

That November, under the leadership of Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate eliminated the filibuster on nominations to the district and appellate courts, along with other changes to the rules that helped Democrats in the Senate confirm Obama's nominees more quickly. Since Republicans won control of the Senate again, fewer judges have been confirmed, but there are now more Democrats on the federal bench than Republicans.

If Obama is able to confirm an additional justice to the Supreme Court, justices named by Democratic presidents will be the majority there, too.

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