As confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh begin with the Senate Judiciary Committee, all eyes are focused on the impact his confirmation would have on the Supreme Court. Conservatives are set to hold a solid majority if Kavanaughis confirmed. What you likely won’t hear much about is another remaking of the courts, by President Donald Trump. And it’s already well underway, as Trump appointees take their places all along the federal bench.
Carl Tobias is a law professor at the University of Richmond, in Virginia. He says the president has gotten a record number circuit court judges confirmed – 26 so far, with 13 more in the pipeline. That’s important because circuit courts are the courts of last resort in the regions of the country where they have jurisdiction.
“The Fifth Circuit would be the supreme court for 99 percent of cases that arise out of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi,” Tobias says.
District courts, where federal cases begin, are the finders of fact for all cases. And they’re the starting point for a vast majority of cases that eventually make it to the Supreme Court.
Lower courts are important, too, though often overlooked. The Supreme Court is taking fewer and fewer cases – Tobias says about 100 cases a year. By contrast, circuit courts are seeing around 50,000 cases.
Tobias says Trump’s court appointees have, so far, been extremely conservative. Tobias says they’re also very young, which means judges appointed in their 30s, 40s and 50s could serve three or four decades.
Tobias says that while Trump has filled many vacancies at the appeals court level, it’s unclear how the judiciary will change overall, since many of the judges he has appointed are replacing other conservatives.
“But still, it’s valuable, from his perspective, to replace someone in his 60s or 70s with someone in his 40s,” Tobias says.
Tobias says Trump has succeeded by remaining focused on these appointments.
“[Past administrations] focused on, and emphasized, the appellate courts to the detriment, really, of the district courts, where there are now some 120 vacancies nationwide,” Tobias says. Those are the courts that Trump is now trying to fill with judges.
Tobias says Texas alone has approximately 10 circuit court vacancies.
“And they’re all emergencies because of the caseloads that the judges are carrying,” he says.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.