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." The importance of the task is hard to overstate.
As we've discussed, 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.
The White House's task of turning the tide is well underway. NBC News reported overnight on Biden's latest picks for the federal bench, which further reflect the president's intention to pick jurists who are both qualified and diverse.
The nominees include David Estudillo, now presiding judge of Grant County Superior Court in Ephrata, Washington, for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.... Biden's other two picks are Tana Lin, also for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, and Christine O'Hearn, for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. Lin, who would be the first Asian American judge for that district.
As White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain has explained, modern presidents haven't generally made much of an effort to put forward nominees for the federal bench this early in their terms. At the 100-day marks, for example, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton hadn't yet nominated anyone for the judiciary. Donald Trump, meanwhile, sent two judicial nominees in his first 100 days, while Back Obama had three.
As of this morning -- Biden's 100th day in office -- the current president has sent 14 judicial nominees to the Senate for consideration, which appears to be a record by a wide margin.
What's more, this isn't just a White House priority. The New York Times reported yesterday on developments in the Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee, which began the task of evaluating some of Biden's early picks for the federal bench.
Most of the focus on Wednesday was on two nominees to federal appeals courts — usually the last stop for major cases before the Supreme Court — Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, chosen for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and Candace Jackson-Akiwumi for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago. Both are Black. Judge Jackson, currently a district court judge in Washington, is considered a potential future Supreme Court nominee by Democrats, and Ms. Jackson-Akiwumi would be the only Black judge on the Seventh Circuit.
As of this morning, there are 73 vacancies on the federal bench -- 78 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 White House is doing its part by taking big steps in the right direction.
Postscript: MSNBC's Chris Hayes noted via Twitter last month, "Just a reminder that the Democrats are one random, awful sudden illness or death away from losing their majority and [Supreme Court Justice Stephen] Breyer should probably consider that."
I like to reemphasize Chris' tweet from time to time because I think about the underlying point every day.