Of all the ways President Donald Trump has undermined our democracy, his massive reshaping of the courts will be the hardest to undo. With the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans, Trump has filled lifetime vacancies on the federal court at a breakneck pace. Many of these nominees have ultraconservative views that are contrary to the direction most Americans think our country should be headed — views that are consistent, however, with Republicans’ desire to accomplish in the courts what they cannot through the legislature. Some nominees are also egregiously unqualified to uphold the integrity Americans have come to expect from judges, but Senate Republicans have nevertheless rubber-stamped their confirmations.
Alliance for Justice has closely monitored and challenged these developments. This report offers a retrospective on Trump’s transformation of the courts over his first three years in office, specifically highlighting how the process accelerated during 2019. Explaining both what has happened to the courts and how, the report details the numerous ways that Senate Republicans have abandoned the Senate’s norms for the confirmation process so that they could fast-track Trump’s nominees, even over the objections of home-state senators. In contrast, McConnell had used those very practices to obstruct many of President Obama’s nominees, including Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, which further explains why Trump has had so many vacancies to fill and why he’s significantly outpaced Obama when it comes to appointing judges.
The numbers tell a scary story. Compared to Obama’s first three years in office, Trump has appointed as many Supreme Court justices (two), twice as many appeals court judges (50 vs. 25), and significantly more district court judges (133 vs. 97). In fact, the Senate confirmed 80 district court nominees just this past year. Disturbingly, Trump has already flipped three different circuit courts of appeals, such that they now have a majority of Republican-appointed judges.
These judges were confirmed despite taking incredibly ugly positions throughout their pasts. The report highlights many of their egregious records on issues that impact Americans of all walks of life, from workers’ rights to civil rights to immigration to the environment. Detailed appendices flesh out these records by issue area, providing an irrefutable glimpse at how hostile these judges are to the rule of law.
After three years of rapid confirmations, the impact of Trump’s judges is already readily apparent. Surprising no one, the decisions these judges have issued from the bench directly reflect the extreme views they espoused before their nominations. The report highlights major examples of how Trump’s judges are already attempting to dismantle many of the legal protections Americans have long taken for granted, such as access to health care and the right to vote.
Despite this dim outlook for the future of our courts, all is not lost. The report concludes by highlighting the way that progressives are significantly more energized by the fate of the courts than ever before. Alliance for Justice is also already planning for the future through the Building the Bench initiative, which will help identify diverse and progressive judges for the next president to appoint.
With lifetime appointments, Trump’s judges will play a part in shaping every aspect of American life for years to come. Understanding just who these judges are and how they got their positions is essential for mitigating the threats they pose to democracy and the law as we know it.