Beyond Gorsuch: Trump has 1 judicial seat filled, 121 to go
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President Trump’s nomination earlier this week of 10 judges to federal courts did not receive nearly as much attention as the recent confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Yet these nominations should not be overlooked by the American public and media because they represent an important step in shaping our nation’s courts — arguably as important as a Supreme Court nomination.

While President Trump has done well to fill the most prominent court seat in the nation, many are unaware that President Trump must fill many others that are currently open — 121, to be exact.

A closer look at the data reveals just how important these federal judges are to our country.

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The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts reports that a total of 677 judges preside over the 94 U.S. District Courts authorized by Congress, while 179 judges sit on the 12 U.S. Courts of Appeal (excluding the Federal Claims Court and the Court of International Trade).

 

At the moment, 121 (20 appellate judges, 101 district judges) of these 856 judicial seats are vacant.

Plaintiffs filed 291,851 civil cases in federal district court — that’s 431 cases per judge — in 2016.  Add to that the 77,357 criminal matters initiated in federal district court and one begins to get a sense of the significant influence our federal district court judges wield over every day Americans. At present, almost 500,000 — half a million — cases are pending before federal district courts across the country.

But, that is just the entry level into the federal judiciary. Last year, litigants appealed 60,357 district court decisions to the 12 federal courts of appeal.

Now compare those numbers to the docket of the Supreme Court of the United States. In 2015, litigants asked SCOTUS to review the appeals of about 7,000 cases. Only 82 received oral argument and a written opinion.

Here’s what that means: of the roughly half-million cases winding through the 94 district courts right now, just 60,000 will be appealed to an appellate court. Of those, less than 100 will be reviewed by the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Put another way, roughly .02 percent of all federal lawsuits filed in a given year make it to a written opinion by a Supreme Court justice.

Political, media and legal theater attend the black-robed nine sitting atop the federal judiciary, and for good reason. Their opinion as to what the law is in less than 100 cases each year ends all discussion, for good or ill.

However, as a country we should not ignore the district and appellate judges in whose courtrooms half a million cases will be filed and tens of thousands of appeals will be heard. Theirs may be the only venue Americans have to resolve disputes of constitutional import.

It is in these “inferior courts,” as the Constitution calls them, where our civil rights are most often tested, tried, and tempered.  The decision of just one district court judge can impact the entire nation every bit as much as nine Supreme Court justices.  Consider how, only this year, a single federal district court judge has twice blocked the president’s executive actions on immigration.   

By appointing Justice Gorsuch, the president demonstrated unflinching fidelity to his campaign promise to appoint judges in the mold of Justice Scalia. President Trump’s true legacy, however, may be in the 121 (and counting) judges he now has the opportunity to nominate.  

Kelly Shackelford, Esq., is President and CEO of First Liberty Institute, a nationwide law firm dedicated to protecting religious liberty for all. Follow him on Twitter @_KShackelford.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.