Trump owes much of his success to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s singular focus on confirming judicial nominees.
McConnell (R-Ky.) most notably refused to fill a Supreme Court vacancy during the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency, but he also stonewalled Obama’s lower bench appointments. And with a rule change in 2017, he sped up confirmations of Supreme Court nominees, requiring just a simple majority, clearing the way for Trump’s first high-court nominee, Neil M. Gorsuch. The push for confirmations continues.
McConnell briefly mentioned judges in remarks Thursday as the Senate prepared to leave for its weeks-long summer recess.
“We’ve made a big dent in the backlog of President Trump’s well-qualified nominees for federal office,” he said. A news release from Senate Republicans on Thursday listed “transforming the courts” as the first of several GOP accomplishments in this session.
This year, the Senate has confirmed 13 of Trump’s nominees for the circuit court and 46 district court picks. In total, the Senate has confirmed two Supreme Court justices — Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh — 43 circuit court judges and 99 district court judges since Trump took office.
The president often talks about his judicial success; he has appointed 1 out of every 5 judges on the appellate bench. The prospect of reshaping the courts energized GOP voters in 2016, and it stands as a powerful argument with core Republican voters for 2020. Yet the issue of the courts has barely attracted the same attention in the Democratic presidential race.
In the two rounds of debate so far, the moderators have focused on health care, immigration and the candidates’ records. The subject of judicial picks has not been broached.
Trump has now surpassed Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Obama in getting judges confirmed by the August recess of his third year in office, according to Russell Wheeler, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and president of the nonpartisan Governance Institute, a think tank focused on inter-branch relations.
Trump is second only to President Bill Clinton, who had secured confirmation of 161 judges by the same point.
“I’m very proud of the judges were confirming,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican. “We’re putting excellent federal judges on the bench who are committed to upholding the law.”
The courts are involved in major decisions affecting every American — on issues such as health care, immigration and the environment — and nearly every Trump policy. With the GOP holding a 53-to-47 majority in the Senate, there is little Democrats can do to stop a long-term Republican stamp on the courts at all levels.
“I know that Senator McConnell made it very clear that he wants to politicize the courts. He wants to have a majority of judges who follow Republican orders,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and current member. “He is doing something that has never been done before — take our independent judiciary and turn it into an arm of the Republican Party.”
Still, Democrats have had some minor success in getting nominees that they favor confirmed. Among the judges installed on the district courts were four Obama-era holdovers whose nominations had remained in limbo for years. Mary Rowland, Trump’s first LGBTQ nominee to the federal judiciary, was confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois with the support of the state’s Democratic senators, Richard J. Durbin and Tammy Duckworth.
But Republicans have gotten several controversial Trump appointees confirmed to the federal bench. Among them is Jeffrey Brown, nominated as a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Texas. Brown, an associate justice on the Texas Supreme Court, served on the advisory board of an antiabortion organization and has publicly opposed the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage.
For the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Trump nominated Brantley Starr, a deputy in the Texas attorney general’s office. Starr has defended Trump’s travel ban and advocated for the defunding of Planned Parenthood.
Civil rights organizations opposed the nominations of Brown and Starr. Both were confirmed Wednesday.