Spotlight: The federal courts

We dig into Trump and McConnell’s efforts to reshape our federal courts, the far-reaching implications, and how we can fight back.

In the past week, the Senate confirmed ten of President Trump’s federal court nominees, bringing his total number of judicial confirmations to over 170.

After changing Senate rules and traditions for the confirmation of judges, Mitch McConnell is turning the Senate into a rubber-stamp body for Trump’s judges, packing the courts with far-right justices who will undermine the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, and immigrants. And these judges serve for life.

It’s a strategy that is going to transform the federal judiciary for decades — but gets far too little attention.

This week’s Off the Sidelines Spotlight digs into Trump and McConnell’s efforts to reshape our federal courts, the far-reaching implications, and how we can fight back.

How are the U.S. federal courts structured? This is a bit complex, but important, so stick with us:

  • The Supreme Court (9 total justices) sits atop the federal court system. SCOTUS has the power to decide all appeals on lower federal court rulings.
  • Below the Supreme Court sit the U.S. Circuit Courts, also known as Courts of Appeals (179 total judges). Our country has 94 federal judicial districts. These districts are organized into 12 federal circuits, each of which has a Court of Appeals. For example, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has jurisdiction over federal cases originating in Alabama, Florida and Georgia’s judicial districts. When a Court of Appeals considers a case, it randomly selects three judges, and does not use a jury.
  • Each of the 94 federal judicial districts has its own U.S. District Court (674 total judges). These are the trial courts of the federal court system, where juries help decide cases. For example, the “U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York,” (sound familiar?) is one of the 94 district courts.

So it’s not just about the Supreme Court? The Supreme Court hears about 100 cases and rejects another 7,000 cases annually. That means that, in the vast majority of cases, decisions made by Courts of Appeals are binding.

And U.S. District Courts are equally powerful. In 2018, U.S. Courts of Appeals reversed fewer than one in ten District Court decisions. So most of the time, U.S. District Courts have the last word.

How many of Trump’s judicial nominees have been confirmed? Under Mitch McConnell, the Senate has confirmed over 170 new federal judges since January 2017:

  • 2 Supreme Court justices
  • 50 Circuit judges
  • 120 District Court judges

How are there so many? In President Obama’s last two years, Mitch McConnell only allowed 22 judges to be confirmed, so he could keep seats open for Trump to fill instead.

In fact, one out of every four circuit judges in the United States has been nominated by President Trump.

Who are Trump’s judicial nominees? Trump’s nominees are, on the whole, the least diverse and most extreme of any others in modern history. Just take a look at this data compiled by NPR:

And in just the last few months, McConnell has pushed through the confirmations of some truly egregious nominees, including:

Steven Menashi (2nd Circuit Court of Appeals), whose abysmal record on immigration, race, women’s equality and LGBTQ rights concerned lawmakers in BOTH parties.

Sarah Pitlyk (U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri), who, in addition to being anti-choice, doesn’t believe in IVF treatments or surrogacy.

And just this week, the Senate confirmed Lawrence VanDyke (9th Circuit Court of Appeals), who the non-partisan American Bar Association rated “not qualified,” and who opposes background checks for gun purchases.

So Trump and McConnell are flooding the federal courts. What are the consequences? We’ve already seen federal courts dismantle the Voting Rights Act, gut our country’s campaign finance laws with Citizens United, and allow states to deny health care to millions of Americans. A more conservative federal judiciary means everything from women’s reproductive health care to environmental protections are at risk.

READ | Lambda Legal’s incoming CEO, Kevin Jennings, discusses the Trump administration’s efforts to pack our courts and its impacts, in particular, on LGBTQ Americans

LISTEN | NPR breaks down Trump’s impact on the federal courts in four minutes

READ | This piece from The Washington Post does a deep dive into the Federalist Society and its effort to remake our country’s courts

READ | This Vox explainer on Trump’s impact on our federal courts is long, but comprehensive

LISTEN | Slate’s “Trumpcast” podcast talks through the dangers of Trump’s lower court judges

Four more years of Trump and McConnell pushing through judicial nominees would be absolutely devastating. And, unfortunately, there’s little Democrats can do to stop the GOP Senate majority from fast-tracking confirmations for dozens more nominees over the next year.

The single most important thing you can do to protect our federal courts is ensure Democrats take back the Senate in 2020.

Make a donation to Off the Sidelines today to re-elect incredible leaders like Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Sen. Tina Smith, and flip critical red-to-blue seats so we take back the Senate.