Republicans confirming Trump's court nominees at record pace

Republicans confirming Trump's court nominees at record pace
© Greg Nash

Senate Republicans are poised to confirm more of President TrumpDonald John TrumpWatergate prosecutor says that Sondland testimony was 'tipping point' for Trump In private moment with Trump, Justice Kennedy pushed for Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination: book Obama: 'Everybody needs to chill out' about differences between 2020 candidates MORE’s nominees to appeals courts next week, putting Trump on pace to have more of those nominees approved in the first two years of his tenure than any other recent president.

It’s the latest milestone for GOP senators who have worked frantically to confirm nominees to the key bench, where judges have played crucial roles in cases involving controversial issues like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and Trump’s travel ban. 

Republicans were already setting a record pace for circuit court picks, breaking a record in December for the most confirmed during a president’s first year and confirming Trump’s 15th appeals court nominee late last month. 

Now they’re poised to confirm, as soon as next week, more circuit nominees for Trump than President Obama, President George W. Bush or President Clinton got confirmed by the end of their second year in office. 

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In addition to the 15 appeals court nominees already confirmed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Deal on defense bill proves elusive | Hill, Holmes offer damaging testimony | Trump vows to block Navy from ousting officer from SEALs Trump steps up GOP charm offensive as impeachment looms Congressional authority in a time of Trump executive overreach MORE (R-Ky.) has set up votes on six additional circuit court nominees for next week, when the chamber returns from a week-long recess. That will bring the total number of appeals court nominees confirmed for Trump up to 21.

By comparison, the Senate confirmed 16 circuit court nominees for Obama by the end of his second year in office, with the final tranche of picks not being confirmed until December of 2010, according to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

President George W. Bush got 17 circuit judges confirmed by the end of 2002, his second year in office, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Clinton had 19 confirmed during his first two years in office, according to CRS, while the Senate rejected three additional appeals court nominations. 

As of May 1, during the second year of their presidencies, Obama and George W. Bush had each gotten nine appeals court nominees confirmed, while Clinton had gotten five, according to data from Alliance for Justice, a liberal outside group. 

The current pace being set by Senate Republicans also positions Trump to get more circuit picks confirmed during the first two years of his presidency than Presidents Reagan or Carter, who had 19 and 12 nominees confirmed, respectively.

At 21 appeals court judges confirmed, Senate Republicans will only be one short of that record — the 22 circuit nominations President George H.W. Bush got through the Senate during his first two years.

The fast pace comes as Republicans have increasingly pointed to their ability to confirm Trump’s nominees as a key reason they should keep control of the Senate heading into the midterm election.

And unlike signature legislation — which GOP senators note Democrats could be quick to overturn once they are back in power — confirming Trump’s judicial picks could shape the direction of the U.S. court system for decades.

McConnell told Fox News late last month that confirming circuit court nominees is his “top priority.” 

“I've processed the circuit judges as rapidly as they've come out of committee. It's been my top priority,” he said.

Republicans under pressure from their base and from prominent conservatives to go even further in speeding up confirmation votes, potentially by keeping Democrats in for a rare Friday or weekend session.

The Senate has confirmed a total of 33 judicial nominees during the current Congress, including the 15 appeals court judges and Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

An additional 18 circuit court seats remain vacant. In addition to the six nominees McConnell has teed up for votes, several other picks are working their way through the Senate’s pipeline.

Democrats have bristled over the pace of the confirmation votes. With only a simple majority needed to confirm nominees, Trump’s picks can clear the Senate without help from Democrats if most of the GOP caucus supports them. 

“The Republicans have not stopped this year. The Republicans engaged in hardball tactics at the district and circuit court levels,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump signs short-term spending bill to avert shutdown Senators urge Trump to suspend Huawei license approvals Tensions rise in Senate's legislative 'graveyard' MORE (D-N.Y.) said from the Senate floor late last week.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTrump steps up GOP charm offensive as impeachment looms Congressional authority in a time of Trump executive overreach Overnight Health Care: Crunch time for Congress on surprise medical bills | CDC confirms 47 vaping-related deaths | Massachusetts passes flavored tobacco, vaping products ban MORE (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has signaled he will move circuit court nominees to the floor even if a home-state senator doesn’t return a blue slip on the nomination.

The “blue-slip” rule — a precedent upheld by Senate tradition — has historically allowed a home-state senator to stop a lower-court nominee by refusing to return a sheet of paper, known as a blue slip, to the Judiciary Committee.

How strictly the precedent is upheld is decided by the Judiciary Committee chairman. Enforcement has fluctuated depending on who controls the panel.

Before the Senate left town last week, McConnell teed up a vote on Michael Brennan to be on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals despite Democratic Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinIt's time for Congress to establish a national mental health crisis number The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Dems unveil impeachment measure; Vindman splits GOP The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Dems shift strategy on impeachment vote MORE (Wis.) refusing to return her blue slip for the nominee.

“During the Obama administration, Republican senators’ blue slips were always honored by both Republican and Democratic chairmen. ... Senator Baldwin is not asking for special treatment. She is simply asking to be given the same deference that was given to Senator Johnson. The only thing that has changed is who sits in the White House,” Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGOP senator blocks vote on House-passed Violence Against Women Act Congress feels heat to act on youth vaping GOP senator wants Violence Against Women Act passage by year end MORE (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.

Schumer added, “Republicans are yet again breaking the rules of the Senate to steal another judicial seat. Republicans, stop complaining.”