Just 10 days after President Joe Biden's inauguration, NBC News reported that the new White House team and Senate Democrats were "embarking on a mission to shape the courts after Republicans overhauled them in the last four years."
Updating our earlier coverage, it looks like that mission is off to a good start. The New York Times reported over the weekend on the final Senate floor votes before members left Capitol Hill until the new year.
In a pre-dawn mad dash before leaving Washington for the holidays, lawmakers confirmed 10 district court judges, bringing the year-end total to 40 and notching an achievement not seen since former President Ronald Reagan. It underscored how the White House has set a rapid pace in filling vacancies on the federal bench, even besting the records set by the Trump administration, which maintained a laser focus on reshaping the judiciary.
Part of what makes the party's success so striking is the professional backgrounds of these jurists: Biden, more so than any modern president, has prioritized nominations for public defenders and civil rights attorneys.
Similarly, the White House has chosen a highly diverse group of judicial nominees. Biden boasted last week at a commencement address at South Carolina State University, a historically Black university, "I'm proud I appointed more Black women to the federal bench and the circuit courts and more former public defenders to the bench than any administration in American history. The previous record was three Black women in eight years. We've confirmed four in less than eight months, and there's more we can do."
According to a round-up released by Senate Democratic leaders, the confirmations also include the first openly lesbian jurist to serve on any federal circuit court, the first Muslim American federal judge, and the first Korean-American woman to serve on a federal appeals court.
But just as notable is the sheer volume and speed with which the narrow Democratic majority in the Senate is filling judicial vacancies. At first blush, 40 may not seem like an especially large number, especially given the fact that the federal judiciary has several hundred court seats.
But based on data compiled by the Senate Democratic leadership, here's a chart I put together, showing the total number of circuit and district court confirmations by presidents in their first year. (This does not include Supreme Court confirmations.)
Biden's total is the most since Ronald Reagan's first year, and tied for the second best since the Great Depression. The party's frustrations about the year's progress notwithstanding, this is something Democrats can and should feel good about.
As we've discussed on several occasions, Republicans in the Trump era prioritized judicial nominees above almost every other consideration. The campaign was as relentless as it was effective: the former president managed to appoint about 230 judges to the federal courts. That's not as many as his recent two-term predecessors, but it was a striking tally for a failed one-term president who never won the popular vote.
With this in mind, the Biden White House has emphasized judicial nominees to a degree without modern precedent, and the narrow Democratic majority in the Senate appears to have taken the matter seriously.
As for the near future, there are currently 73 vacancies on the federal bench — more if we include the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims — and that number is likely to grow as sitting judges retire and take senior status. Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said several months ago that filling every vacancy by the end of 2022 is his party's "very prudent goal."
That's an ambitious target, which will require a concerted effort on the part of Democratic leaders, but so far, the relevant players appear to be taking the right steps in a smart direction.