With the Senate Republicans’ unprecedented obstruction of Merrick Garland’s nomination and a trio of current justices soon to be or already over age 80, the future of the Supreme Court is central to this year’s election. But the focus on the Supreme Court overshadows the election’s larger meaning for the courts. No matter who the next president is, he or she will have also a significant impact on the makeup of the federal judiciary by appointing judges to the lower courts. In this post, we predict how significant that impact will be. By looking at how the circuit courts have changed in the recent past, combined with how many judges are eligible to retire in the coming years, we get a relatively clear picture of how the next two presidential elections will affect the circuit courts’ composition.
Because the Supreme Court hears only around 80 cases each year, the circuit courts, which on the whole decide over 30,000 cases per year, often render the final word on important questions of federal and constitutional law. This is all the more true with an eight-member Supreme Court that can deadlock without resolving even the small number of cases it does hear. That happened with the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, which the Court recently remanded to various courts of appeals without addressing the merits. And with just months to go, circuit courts will decide whether the November elections will be held under the cloud of discriminatory voter ID laws and other voting restrictions. The upshot is clear: when it comes to decisions that profoundly impact our daily lives, the Supreme Court isn’t the only game in town. Read more