Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell did a fine job of filling federal court of appeals judgeships. They left very little on the table for Joe Biden.
However, if one looks at federal district courts, a different picture emerges. Trump and Senate Republicans left more than 50 district court judgeships unfilled at the end of Trump’s term.
Some of these slots have been vacant for four years or more. These were positions that Barack Obama left unfilled.
Obama left 88 district court judgeships open. At first blush, then, the failure to fill 52-53 vacancies (I’m not certain of the exact number of vacancies as of January 20) during the Trump years doesn’t look so bad.
However, there’s a key difference. Republicans controlled the Senate for Trump’s entire four years. Democrats did not control the Senate during Obama’s last two. That’s why Obama left so many judgeships unfilled. Senate Republicans were able to thwart him.
Four years later, the GOP has no such excuse. It could have filled virtually all federal judgeships during Trump’s term. Instead, it left more than 50 district court positions open for Joe Biden to fill — a self-inflicted wound that will come back to haunt conservatives.
It’s ironic that so many judgeships went unfilled under Trump. He liked to chide Obama for leaving him all those judicial vacancies. For example, in one of the 2016 presidential debates, Trump said:
I’ll have so many judges because President Obama. . .left me 128 judges to fill. You just don’t do that.
But Trump left almost half that many for Biden to fill, and without Obama’s valid excuse.
To be fair, the fault lies more with Senate Republicans than with Trump. They permitted too much obstruction by Democrats. Now that they’re back in control, I’m betting that Democrats won’t tolerate nearly as much from Republicans.
STEVE adds: There was actually no shortage of candidates to fill these openings, but there is one important difference, though, between district court judgeships and appeals court openings. For the circuit court vacancies, the Republicans got rid of the “blue slip” process by which a senator can block proceeding on a nomination, but they did not get rid of the “blue slip” for district court appointments. The White House wanted to, but too many Republican senators did not want to give up the prerogative to have a veto over home-state district court appointments. This made it difficult to advance a lot of nominees. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, for example, refused to allow any district court nominations to go forward in California. We’ll see if Democrat now dump the blue slip for district court openings. I suspect not.