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In our last State of the Judiciary report in October 2013, we reported an unprecedented judicial vacancy crisis fueled by Republican obstruction at all stages of the confirmation process. There was also a question of whether the obstruction would go unchecked, leaving judicial nominees mired in Senate gridlock and further limiting the federal courts’ ability to provide justice. The subsequent six months have provided a clear and hopeful answer: Senate Democrats, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have responded boldly to mindless obstruction, making judicial confirmations a top priority on the Senate floor. While much work remains to be done, the Senate has already confirmed 47 judges this year (compared to 22 in the first five months of 2013), and the judiciary now has the lowest total of current vacancies in five years.

Over the last five years, President Obama has consistently faced more than 100 total judicial vacancies and 30 “judicial emergencies”—a designation for courts that do not have enough to judges to handle their existing caseload. When we issued our October report, there were 111 total vacancies and 37 judicial emergencies, both high numbers that reflect a drastically understaffed judiciary. Since the president increased the pace of nominations in his second term, these persistent vacancies were born of obstruction and delay tactics by Republican Senators. In recent months, however, Senate Democrats have made clear that they will protect democratic process in the Senate, and that obstruction and gridlock cannot be the “new norm” for judicial nominees.

This report provides detailed statistical analysis of federal judicial vacancies, nominations, and confirmations throughout the Obama administration. In brief, the report documents that:

  • During President Obama’s time in office, current vacancies have risen by 13%. This is in contrast to the same point in President Clinton’s and President Bush’s second terms, when vacancies had declined by 32% and 43%, respectively. [See infra, page 10]
  •  7.2% of all federal judgeships are vacant. This is a significant reduction from one month ago, in April 2014, when 10% of federal judgeships were vacant. As of June 1, there are 19 more judicial vacancies than at the same point in President George W. Bush’s second term, but eight fewer than in President Clinton’s presidency. [See infra, page 10]
  •  87% of President Obama’s nominees have been confirmed; comparatively, President George W. Bush and President Clinton had confirmation rates of 90% and 81% respectively this far into their second terms. [See infra, page 10]
  • Overall, states with at least one Republican Senator account for 87% of all current vacancies without nominees, and states with two Republican Senators account for 55% of all current vacancies without nominees.
  • Texas and Pennsylvania together account for 50% (19 of 38) of all current vacancies without nominees.
  • The number of seats considered to be “judicial emergencies” has risen by 25%, from 20 at the beginning of President Obama’s term to 25. [See infra, page 12]
  • President Obama’s appointments have given Democratic-appointed judges an overall majority on the federal courts. Since the end of the Bush Administration, the percentage of Republican-appointed circuit court judges dropped from 61.3% to 46.5%, and the percentage of Republican-appointed district court judges dropped from 58.6% to 47.1%.
  • Nine circuit courts of appeals have a majority of Democratic-appointed judges, and four circuit courts have a majority of Republican-appointed judges. When President Obama took office, 10 circuit courts were controlled by Republicans, one was controlled by Democratic appointees, and two were evenly divided. [See infra, page 12]