Throughout the legislative battles of President Joe Biden’s first two years in office, one Democratic priority served as a clear if quiet measure of methodical, consistent accomplishment: the pipeline of judicial confirmations to the federal bench.
In the final days of the 117th Congress, the scale of that effort – and success – is laid bare in both the total number of confirmed judges and the makeup of the selections themselves.
Biden and Senate Democrats, even while holding the barest of majorities, confirmed 97 Article III judges over the last two years, including a Supreme Court justice, 28 circuit court judges and 68 district court judges, according to White House data obtained by CNN.
There are no signs that that pace, which is notable in both the scale and level of diversity it represents, is going to slow in the next two years as Democrats prepare to expand their majority by a seat.
“You can be sure that judges will remain a top priority in the Congress to come,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.
For Biden and other Democrats, the filling of federal judicial openings took on a new level of significance in the wake of the historically successful push by former President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans. Biden pledged during his presidential campaign not only to make nominations a priority, but also to pursue nominees who brought both personal and professional diversity to the bench.
Trump’s success marked a cornerstone achievement for then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and elevated the issue among Democrats, who saw the balance of courts from the Supreme Court on down reshaped before Trump’s 2020 reelection defeat.
While a Senate rule change easing the pathway to confirmation rapidly accelerated McConnell’s efforts in Trump’s final two years, the pace Biden and Senate Democrats have maintained make clear what officials continue to pledge will be followed by action: that judicial nominations will remain a top priority.
That’s particularly the case as Biden stares down divided government in the back half of his first term, with House Republicans set to take the majority, slamming the door shut on Biden’s major legislative efforts in the process.
But that will have no effect on the confirmation process, which will actually be eased to a degree by Schumer’s newly expanded majority.
Biden’s senior team and counsel’s office tightly coordinated with their Senate counterparts throughout first two years to prioritize the efforts. Staff on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue closely monitored and meticulously worked to accelerate effort month after month, even as it rarely seized the attention drawn to major agenda items.
But as Congress nears the end of the year, the numbers tell the story extensive effort behind the scenes between the White House and Senate Democrats to rapidly put their own mark a judiciary reshaped by Biden’s predecessor.
The numbers surpass Trump’s tally of 85, which was secured with Senate Republicans in the first half of a historically transformational effort to reshape the federal courts.
Biden’s confirmation effort surpasses former President Barack Obama’s first two years by 35 judges.
Still, there are limitations on the extent to which Biden can match the scale of what Trump put into place in his four years, with vacancies – and on which courts those vacancies take place – presenting limitations on the reach of what will be a sustained White House effort. The scale of the effort led by McConnell, who would often repeat a personal mantra of “no vacancy left behind,” also resulted in significantly fewer opportunities for Biden, even as officials pledge to ramp up their own efforts in the next two years.
Beyond the overall numbers, the nominees selected by Biden and shepherded through the chamber by Schumer, a New York Democrat, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Durbin of Illinois, also reflect a commitment to rethink the profile of those considered for the high-profile positions.
Biden’s confirmed circuit court judges, which hold an outsized importance given the court’s role as both the second highest in the land and as a springboard for potential Supreme Court nominees, hold more experience as public defenders than all prior presidents combined, according to the White House.
The composition of Biden’s nominations has skewed heavily toward people of color and that’s reflected in the confirmations, making up 67% of the group that has passed Senate muster up to this point.
Biden has overseen the confirmation of more women to the federal bench, 74, than former President Donald Trump secured in four years in office and former President George W. Bush in all eight years of his presidency.
Biden’s first opportunity to put his stamp on the Supreme Court – Ketanji Brown Jackson – was a Black woman and the 11 Black women confirmed to circuit court judgeships are three more than all of his predecessors combined.
“We’ve never seen a class of new judges that bring so much diversity, variety, and dynamism in a single two-year stretch,” Schumer said this week. “And of course it’s not just the diversity of demography that matters: in the last two years the Senate has confirmed more civil rights lawyers, public defenders, election attorneys, immigration lawyers than we typically see in this chamber.”