Trump appointed 28% of all the federal judges in the US, and they could mold American life for decades to come
- In just one term, President Donald Trump appointed over a quarter of the entire federal judiciary.
- Insider compiled the complete database of every active Article III judge, who serve for life.
- Trump’s appointees tend to be more male, more white, and less experienced than his predecessors’.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
In just four years, President Donald Trump reshaped the federal judiciary system into a conservative powerhouse, transforming the nation’s court system — and American life — for decades to come.
The one-term president named more than 230 judges to the federal court system for life, leaving an outside impact that will be felt for generations.
Insider compiled a database of every Article III judge in the federal court system. Article III of the US Constitution allots power to the Supreme Court, federal circuit, district judges, and the US Court of International Trade. Unlike judges in state courts, Article III judges are granted lifetime appointments once nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Every two-term president since Ronald Reagan has appointed at least 320 judges with lifetime appointments, but Trump bucked the trend and installed nearly 70% of that in just one term. In only four years, Trump installed approximately 28% of all the Article III judges.
Trump’s direct predecessor, President Barack Obama, appointed about 40% of the current judiciary. Many presidents will do everything they can to fill vacant court seats on their way out of office, but then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate stymied Obama’s efforts.
Thus, Trump came into office with 105 vacancies, including a Supreme Court seat that Justice Neil Gorsuch eventually filled.
“When you leave office, you don’t leave any judges,” Trump said in the 2020 presidential debate. “That’s like, you just don’t do that.”
People may think the Supreme Court has the biggest effect on the law, but the high court only hears around 100 of the most pressing cases per year. The federal district courts hear more than 250,000, shaping the entire judicial system along the way. There are currently 678 district court judgeships in 94 district courts that Congress authorized via legislation. Of the 678 district court judgeships, Trump filled 170 of them — 25% of the entire federal district judiciary.
To settle disputes in those 94 district courts, 13 circuit courts are comprised of the most experienced judges, who hear more than 50,000 cases from across the court system every year. Of the 179 authorized circuit court judgeships, Trump appointed 54, nearly a third of the entire circuit court system. He also managed to replace 19 judges who Democratic presidents previously appointed.
Perhaps even more critically, the Trump administration successfully managed to flip three of the circuit courts from a Democratic majority to a Republican majority. (While judges are technically nonpartisan and say they vote based on the facts of cases, studies have shown their decisions tend to lean politically toward the president who appointed them — see here, here, here, and here).
In early March, however, a judge who Republican former President George W. Bush appointed took senior status, vacating the position and giving President Joe Biden the opportunity to flip back the Second Circuit to a Democratic majority. Biden has yet to fill the position.
Trump appointed, and the Senate confirmed, mostly white judges
More than 350 languages are spoken throughout the US. But the nation’s judiciary does not match the demographics of the country.
According to a recent study from the Brookings Institute, about 40% of the country are people of color, but Insider’s analysis found only about 26% of the federal court system is comprised of Hispanic, Asian, Black, and Native American judges.
More than eight-out-of-10 of Trump’s appointed judges, many of whom were handpicked from the conservative Federalist Society, are white.
Presidents from both sides of the aisle usually select judges to match the ideologies of their base, said Barbara Graham, an associate professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
With that reasoning, she said, it makes sense why Trump’s judges are mostly white, as it’s “basically a white party.”
Judicial activists and experts have long pushed for more diversity in the federal court system, and several members of the nation’s highest court agree.
In 2016, Supreme Court justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor said communities are better served with a more diverse judiciary.
“People look at an institution and they see people who are like them, who share their experiences, who they imagine share their set of values, and that’s a sort of natural thing and they feel more comfortable if that occurs,” Kagan said.
Trump appointed way more male judges
Trump also picked far fewer female judges than his predecessors’.
The complete federal judiciary is composed of about one-third female judges and two-thirds male judges. Only about 24% of Trump’s judges are women, about 9% less than the federal courts system.
With a new Republican-leaning Supreme Court, lawmakers around the country are looking for new ways to enact federal abortion restrictions. In early March, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a law that only allows abortions in the state if the mother’s life is in danger.
After signing the bill, Hutchinson lamented to CNN that he hoped the bill would travel up the judicial system to directly challenge the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized the right nationwide.
Theresa Lau, the senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, told Insider that while the US court system has historically never been representative of the nation’s demographics as a whole, more equal representation would allow for more equitable sentencing and treatment.
“When a court is reflective of … the people they are aiming to protect, then individuals who appear in front of the court may be more confident that the court understands the real-world implications of their rulings and therefore will have better outcomes,” Lau said.
Trump’s appointed judges tend to have less experience
Using Insider’s database, we found that some of the Trump appointees lack the most basic of judicial experience — several had zero trial experience.
Sarah Pitlyk, a district judge appointed under Trump, is one of the judges who was appointed with no litigation experience. She was later listed on Trump’s shortlist of possible Supreme Court Justice replacements after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died.
Of the complete judiciary, the American Bar Association only deemed 10 active federal judges “Not Qualified”. Trump installed eight and W. Bush appointed the other two.
The Trump administration decided to terminate the professional relationship between the White House and the ABA and said it wouldn’t include the organization in its vetting process. Though Biden has yet to announce any nominations, his administration told the ABA in early February that it would follow Trump’s lead and not let the group act as the official gatekeeper of Biden’s nominations.
Biden has the opportunity to appoint 72 vacancies right now
As Biden reaches his 69th day in office, he has 72 Article III judge vacancies to fill, five of whom are in the court of appeals. So far he has yet to fill any of these spots, but his presidential transition team began asking Senate Democrats to recommend judicial nominations with a preference for public defenders and civil rights lawyers, HuffPost reported.
Past presidents from both parties have failed to prioritize promoting public defenders to federal judgeships: Fewer than 15% of Obama’s judicial appointees and only three of Trump’s spent any time as public defenders before receiving lifetime appointments.
During his presidential campaign, Biden pledged to break new ground and fill the first Supreme Court opening with a Black female judge. Now that he’s in office, he’ll face additional pressure from advocacy groups and lobbyists to hold to his word, if a vacancy opens up on the high court.
Biden released his first list of judicial nominations on Tuesday that would boost the diversity of the judiciary. Included in the mix is Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson for US Attorney General Merrick Garland’s old seat in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Some experts believe Brown will be Biden’s future nomination to the Supreme Court.
With a 50-50 partisan split in the Senate and Vice President Kamala Harris as the Democratic tie-breaking vote, Biden’s ability to push through highly progressive judges may be curtailed, leading him to select more moderate judges.
With a Democratic Senate majority in the first half of his term, he’ll be able to avoid the level of Republican stonewalling that Obama faced when attempting to appoint judges that ultimately led to Trump’s historic number of appointed judges in his one term in office.
If Biden hadn’t won the tight election in November 2020, experts say that that Trump would have continued to fill the courts in his ideological image.
“Four more years of Trump appointments would have had a disastrous impact on our judiciary and put even more rights at risk,” Kang said.
But for now, it’s Biden’s time to shape the courts, and he’s just getting started.
Click here to view and download the full spreadsheet of active Article III federal judges.
Oma Seddiq and Erin Snodgrass contributed reporting.
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