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."
While President Joe Biden's economic agenda is mired in Democratic infighting, the Senate is quietly making history with his judicial nominees. The Democratic-controlled Senate voted 52-41 Monday to confirm Gustavo Gelpi to be a judge on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Boston, making him the fifth new circuit judge with a background as a public defender on Biden's watch.
Part of what makes this so striking is the professional backgrounds of these jurists: Most modern presidents made little effort to nominate judges with experience as public defenders. Under Biden, meanwhile, eight Senate-confirmed judges are now on the bench after having worked as public defenders.
But just as notable is the sheer volume and speed with which the narrow Democratic majority in the Senate is filling judicial vacancies. NBC News' report added that Biden, at least for now, is "outpacing every other president since Richard Nixon in confirming circuit judges, who have the last word in most federal cases."
As of today, the Senate has confirmed 18 judicial nominees, a third of whom now sit on appeals courts.
At first blush, 18 may not seem like an especially large number, especially given the fact that the federal judiciary has several hundred court seats. But given that the president was inaugurated nine months ago today, Biden and his party are clearly taking the confirmation process more seriously than any modern Democratic president.
For much of the left, the focus on the judiciary is welcome. 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 recognize the significance of the issue.
As of this morning, there are 79 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 a Rhode Island, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, has said 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.