President Trump appointed a total of 23 judges to the federal judiciary during his first year, leading some to claim it was his greatest success and to already speculate that it will be a legacy of his since judges are appointed for life.
Those appointments included a U.S. Supreme Court justice, 12 Courts of Appeals judges, and 10 District Court judges. That makes Trump the first president in 136 years to fill a Supreme Court vacancy in his first 100 days and sets an all-time record for the most Courts of Appeals judges confirmed during the first year of a presidency.
To give some perspective, the four presidents before Trump had no more than six Courts of Appeals judges confirmed during that same timeframe. As of March 7, 2018, two additional Courts of Appeals judges have been confirmed, raising the total number of judges to 29.
Understanding the basic structure of the federal judiciary is necessary to grasp the significance of what is happening. The judicial structure resembles an upside-down funnel or pyramid, getting narrower the higher you go.
The 94 U.S. District Courts are the lowest level and resolve disputes by determining the facts of the case and applying legal principles. Those 94 U.S. District Courts are organized into 12 regional circuits. If a party in a case loses at the District Court level, they can appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals overseeing their circuit, which reviews the District Court’s decision to determine whether or not the law was correctly applied. A losing party can then ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals, but it is up to the Supreme Court’s discretion whether or not to grant the review.
According to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member, “circuit courts serve as the de facto Supreme Court to the vast majority of individuals who bring cases. They are the last word.” When you understand that, you can begin to grasp the impact that Trump’s record number of appointments will likely have on the federal judiciary.
A brief look at the numbers clearly illustrates Feinstein’s point. The 12 Courts of Appeals received 58,951 appeals in 2017. But the Supreme Court only receives approximately 7,000-8,000 petitions to reverse the Courts of Appeals each year. And of those relatively few petitions (less than 14 percent of Court of Appeals cases), the Supreme Court usually grants only about 80 cases per year. That’s less than 1 percent of the petitions. For the parties that come before the Courts of Appeals, that court will be the final word for 99.86 percent of them.
Trump’s first year appointments will have a direct impact on Kentucky because three of the 12 Courts of Appeals judges were for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which oversees the Commonwealth’s region.
Those judges may play a role in Governor Bevin’s appeal to the Sixth Circuit defending Kentucky’s 2017 ultrasound law and other important cases.
Despite Trump’s record pace, much potential remains for him to continue reshaping the federal judiciary. Seven nominees are currently pending to help fill the 17 remaining vacancies in the Courts of Appeals, and, in addition, three more nominees are also already pending for three judges who have announced their impending retirements.
For District Courts, 45 nominees are currently pending to begin filling the 124 remaining vacancies.
Conservative court watchers are hoping that the Republican Party retains control of the Senate during this Fall’s mid-term elections in order for Trump to complete the work he has begun in the judiciary.