President Joe Biden and the Democrat-led Senate are working quickly to appoint judges from a broad range of backgrounds to the federal bench as they counter Republican efforts to reshape the bench over the previous four years.
The push comes after former President Donald Trump, working with then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, appointed more than 200 federal judges and three Supreme Court justices during his term. Federal judges are appointed for life and serve long after a president leaves office.
Six months into Biden’s presidency, eight of his judicial nominees have been confirmed. That is more than any other president at the same point in the last 50 years.
Tiffany Cunningham became Biden’s eighth appointed judge when the Senate confirmed her on Monday to serve on the US Court of Appeals Circuit Judge for the Federal Circuit. Cunningham also makes history as the first Black judge on the federal circuit.
Biden's White House
In addition to Cunningham, Biden has had two other circuit judges and five district judges confirmed. Biden’s nominees reflect his pledge to appoint a more diverse judiciary, and many of his picks are women and minorities. Last month, the Senate confirmed Zahid Quraishi as the first Muslim federal court judge in the nation’s history.
Biden served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1987 to 1995 and is steeped in the nuances of the judicial confirmation process.
“He’s no foreigner to this stuff. He knows what this is all about. He knows what the stakes are, and he’s acting accordingly,” Russell Wheeler, a visiting fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program and president of the Governance Institute, told CNN in an interview.
Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, also brings a wealth of knowledge about the process. Klain has been at the center of Supreme Court confirmations for much of the past three decades as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee and as a leading lawyer in Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s administrations.
“President Biden – together with the Senate – has had more federal judges confirmed in the first year of his presidency than any president in the last 50 years, and has had more African American women confirmed for the US Court of Appeals in a single presidential term than any President in history,” a White House official told CNN.
Democrats are pressing to quickly fill openings across the federal judiciary while they have a slim majority in the Senate.
Schumer said on the floor of the Senate last week: “The Senate has already confirmed more circuit and district court judges before July 4th than during the first year of any presidency in recent history. We will continue this critical work in the months to come and restore balance – much needed balance – to the federal judiciary.”
While the administration has moved quickly to get judges nominated to lower court seats to meet Schumer’s call for balance in the judiciary, there’s one major appointment Biden still hasn’t had the opportunity to make: a Supreme Court seat.
At this point in his term, Trump had already had Justice Neil Gorsuch confirmed to the bench, along with three other federal judges. He would go on to reshape the nation’s highest court with two additional Supreme Court appointments – Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
There have been no Supreme Court vacancies for Biden to fill, but anticipation is building over whether Justice Stephen Breyer will step down and give Democrats the chance to replace him while they still hold a majority in the Senate. Breyer recently told CNN he has not decided when he will retire, despite mounting pressure from Democrats.
Obama did not have any federal judges confirmed to the bench within his first six months in office, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed to the Supreme Court shortly after the six-month mark. Former President George W. Bush had three federal judges confirmed six months into his first term, and former Clinton did not have any federal judges confirmed within that time frame.
Biden’s 32 federal judicial nominees so far have included public defenders, civil rights attorneys and labor lawyers. They would expand the number of Black and Native American judges on the federal bench.
Wheeler noted the President is under pressure from some advocacy groups to support expanding the Supreme Court, and said appointing federal judges at a rapid pace could be a way to placate these groups. Earlier this year, Biden established a bipartisan commission to examine potentially expanding the Supreme Court or setting term limits for justices.
Wheeler also said another reason for the sped-up process is if Breyer were to step down and create a vacancy on the court, a Supreme Court nomination process would halt all other confirmations for other judges.