The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How three decades of partisan fighting and hypocrisy enabled Trump to reshape the federal judiciary

President Trump's remaking of the federal judiciary follows a three-decade period of rising partisanship — and hypocrisy — over federal judicial nominees. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

When President Trump announces his third pick to the Supreme Court on Saturday, it will solidify the contours of the partisan fight over who will fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat. The current battle is just the latest salvo in more than three decades of partisan fighting and hypocrisy over federal judicial nominees.

The nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987 and the fight that followed laid the groundwork for curtailing, and ultimately eliminating, the filibuster rights of the minority party on all judicial nominations. It led, in part, to the first successful circuit court filibuster in 2003, the slowest rate of judicial confirmations in more than 60 years during the Obama administration and the longest Supreme Court vacancy in the nine-justice era in 2016.

Over the past three years, the Senate has confirmed more than 200 Trump judicial nominees. One in every four circuit court judges is now a Trump appointee. Each of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees have been confirmed with only a simple majority needed to end any potential filibuster.

Now, Republicans and Democrats are accusing each other of hypocrisy. Democrats who called for filling the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016 are now calling for it to be held open, and Republicans who called for holding open the vacancy in 2016 are now calling for it to be filled.

The Fix drew upon hours of archival footage and interviews with Post reporters to analyze the history of Supreme Court nominating battles and how they could impact the high court for years to come.