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."
That mission took an important step forward today.
The Senate is set to approve President Joe Biden's first judicial nominees this week, marking the start of an ambitious push to make an impact on the federal courts. The Senate advanced the nomination of Julien Xavier Neals to be a district judge in New Jersey by a vote of 66-28 on Monday, setting up a final confirmation vote Tuesday. Next up on Tuesday is Regina M. Rodriguez to be a district judge in Colorado.
Neals was, in fact, confirmed to the federal bench shortly after noon, with a 66-33 vote on the Senate floor.
It was a long time coming. In fact, it was more than six years ago when then-President Barack Obama first nominated Neals for the district court. The respected lawyer received a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, and he was so uncontroversial that he cleared the panel in November 2015 with a voice vote.
And then, nothing. Senate Republican leaders weren't exactly eager to confirm a Democratic president's court picks, regardless of merit, so Neals' nomination withered on the vine. He waited nearly 700 days for a confirmation vote that never came.
At least, that is, until this year, when Biden re-nominated him and Senate Democratic leaders confirmed the overdue judicial nominee.
In floor remarks this morning, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said of Neals' confirmation, "The first, but certainly not the last, not even close."
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 80 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 be around 100 later this year as sitting judges retire and take senior status. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), 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.
Update: This afternoon, the Senate also confirmed Regina M. Rodriguez to a district court in Colorado. The final vote was 72 to 28.