August 01, 2017
There may be some drama with the president's own staff, but Republicans have plenty of good things to say about his other hires: a popular slate of judges to the federal bench. As the health care debate unfolded on Capitol Hill, President Trump was simultaneously working to fulfill another promise -- restoring order to the activist courts.
And so far, the new president is breaking all kinds of records to accomplish it, moving at a "breakneck pace" to fill dozens of key judicial vacancies. Outpacing even Barack Obama, Trump's moves weren't so much under the radar as underreported by a media consumed by the Senate soap opera. Now that the GOP is taking time to regroup on health care, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is hoping to pick up steam on court appointments that many believe will be Trump's most important contribution.
If anyone understands the significance of that, it's Democrats. "This will be the single most important legacy of the Trump administration," Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) told Business Insider. "[The Senate majority] will quickly be able to put judges on circuit courts all over the country, district courts all over the country that will -- given the [nominees'] youth and conservatism -- have a significant impact on the shape and trajectory of American law for decades." For conservatives, who are still reeling from the setback on the repeal of Obamacare, which they weren't expecting, judicial appointments may be exactly the momentum the party needs to get back in voters' good graces. After all, Coons explains, this deserves America's attention "given... the significance of what will eventually be a wholesale change among the federal judiciary."
Calling his progress "staggering," court watchers say the number of nominees for "vacant U.S. attorney positions, a crucial area, is dwarfing that of the past administration this early on." Although Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch was the biggest prize, Trump's "judges-first" mentality has the potential to shift issues before they ever reach the high court. By July, a half-year into the president's term, Trump had nominated "18 people for district judgeship vacancies, 14 for circuit courts and the Court of Federal Claims, and 23 for U.S. attorney slots. During that same timeframe in President Barack Obama's first term, Obama had nominated just four district judges, five appeals court judges, and 13 US attorneys. In total, Trump nominated 55 people, and Obama just 22," Allan Smith points out. Even more interesting, 45 are from (or nominated for seats) in states that Donald Trump won in the November election.
One thing's for sure: the White House is keeping the Senate hopping. Still in session for two more weeks, McConnell's chamber had hoped the overtime would help the GOP deliver wins on originalists like Kevin Newsom, an Alabama appeals court nominee. With 136 "help wanted" signs hanging over the federal bench, Republicans looked forward to at least some cooperation from Democrats -- only to face a barrage of stalling tactics and procedural games. In the tradition of the Senate, the Judiciary Committee won't move a nominee unless both home state senators send back the blue slip of approval.
Not surprisingly, Senate Democrats have had more than their share of "my-dog-ate-my-blue-slip" excuses. Moving at a glacial pace, they've only confirmed three of Trump's nominees to the federal bench. But Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley's (R-Iowa) patience is wearing thin. If the obstruction doesn't stop, Grassley says the GOP will move on -- with or without the Democrats' consent. Like us, the Left knows the stakes. As Heritage Foundation's John Malcolm explains, "Who the judges are in these lower courts have a significant impact on the direction of the law. I mean, the federal courts of appeals hear about 50,000 cases a year. The Supreme Court only hears about 75 cases a year. And they tend to take cases in which there is a split in the circuit, and if all of the circuits are ideologically aligned, you're going to have fewer of those splits."
After a July of bitter disappointments on the health care front, Senate Republicans have a rare opportunity to redeem themselves before leaving for an abbreviated recess. Thanks to Trump's commitment on judges, they may not be going home entirely empty handed.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.