DemDaily: The Confirmation Count: Biden’s Bench

December 21, 2021

The US Senate's confirmation of nine federal judges last Saturday brings the total to 40 in the first year of President Biden’s presidency, the largest number of judicial nominees confirmed during a president's first year in office in forty years.

The slate of judicial appointments also represents the most diverse in history, both in ethnicity and professional background, countering the Trump era appointments that packed the courts with young right-wing judges who were mostly white and male.

Article III of the Constitution governs the appointment, tenure, and payment of Supreme Court, and federal circuit and district judges. These judges, often referred to as “Article III Judges,” are nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The Federal Court System

The US Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal system, with ultimate and largely discretionary appellate jurisdiction over all federal and state court cases that involve a point of federal law. Of the 7,000-8,000 cases filed with the court annually, "SCOTUS" grants and hears oral arguments in less than 100 cases. The last three justices were confirmed under the Trump administration, resulting in a 6-3 conservative majority.

The US Court of Appeals are the intermediate appellate courts that serve as the final arbiter on most federal cases. They are divided into 13 regional Circuit Courts, each comprised of a three-judge panel, which hears both civil and criminal appeals from the district courts within their jurisdiction. The 179 Circuit Court judgeships have lifetime tenure.

In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, like patent law.

US District Courts are the trial courts of the federal system with 94 judicial districts in 50 states and territories. Each district includes a US bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court and four US territories have district courts that hear federal cases.

There are also two special trial courts: The Court of International Trade, which addresses cases involving trade and customs laws, and the US Court of Federal Claims, which deals with claims for money damages against the US government.

The United States Senate has confirmed 40 Article III judges nominated by Biden: 11 judges for the United States Courts of Appeals and 29 judges for the United States District Courts. There are 31 additional nominations awaiting Senate action, with 67 current and 113 total announced vacancies.

The Nominees

Biden has delivered on his promise to reshape the federal courts "to ensure that the nation’s courts reflect the diversity that is one of our greatest assets as a country."

Of his 71 nominees, women account for 73.2%, compared to 42% of Obama's confirmations and just 24% under Trump.

Individuals of color account for 64.8% of Biden's nominees, compared to 36% confirmed under Obama and 16% under Trump.

This year the Senate confirmed a number of "firsts": New Jersey District Judge Zahid Quraishi, the first Muslim to sit on a federal district bench; 2nd Circuit Judge Beth Robinson, the first openly LGBTQ woman judge on any federal appeals court; and Lucy Koh to the 9th Circuit, the first Korean American woman on a federal appeals court.

Among the highest-profile confirmations was that of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the influential US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

It positions Jackson as a favorite to become the next US Supreme Court Justice when a vacancy occurs, fulfilling Joe Biden’s promise to nominate the first African-American female judge to the High Court.

Biden’s administration has also gone to great lengths to nominate individuals of professional diversity, adding, as Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer said, "to the breadth and width and depth of knowledge possessed by the courts.”

“It is no longer a bench that is simply prosecutors, partners in large law firms — but rather many, many others from walks of life with different and needed perspectives on the federal bench, such as public defenders, civil rights lawyers, election experts and more,” said Schumer after last weekend's votes.

Amid ongoing attempts to slow the process by GOP Senators, we can expect the pace of Biden's confirmations to the federal bench to continue at a rapid pace as we approach the 2022 elections.

Although Trump pushed through only 18 judges at this point in his presidency, the final numbers under his term and the then Republican-controlled Senate, culminated in the confirmation of 234 predominantly conservative judges.

If Democrats lose the Senate next year, we will be fortunate to reach half that amount.

Related: DemDaily: The Confirmation Count: Our Ambassadors 12/20/21

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Sources: USCourts.gov, White House, Ballotpedia, Washington Post, New York Times, Demand Justice, Reuters, YahooNews, NPR

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