President Trump’s astounding record of judicial appointments will not only reshape the judiciary for a generation, but it will likely deny President-elect Joe Biden the chance to put much of his own stamp on the courts.
By the numbers: Trump came into office with 17 vacancies on federal circuit courts of appeals, plus an open Supreme Court seat. Ultimately, he filled three Supreme Court seats and appointed 54 circuit-court judges in just one term — the Senate confined the 54th, a replacement for Judge Amy Coney Barrett on the 7th Circuit, just this week. President Obama got a grand total of 55 during his two terms.
- The appointments will be the outgoing president's most lasting, substantive legacy.
What’s next: There are now only two appellate vacancies awaiting the president-elect, and he will have no realistic chance of changing the ideological balance on the Supreme Court, currently split with a 6-3 conservative majority.
- There are 47 vacancies in federal district courts. If Democrats control the Senate, Biden may be able to fill many of those openings.
- But those judges’ rulings would then be appealed to circuit courts now stocked with Trump appointees, and from there to the Supreme Court, with its expanded conservative majority.
Between the lines: If Republicans end up controlling the Senate, Biden can forget about filling almost any important judgeships, especially with progressive or polarizing nominees. But his judicial legacy will be constrained even if Democrats take the Senate.
- Without a backlog of vacancies to begin with, Biden will only be able to fill openings that arise while he’s president.
- That means he’ll probably be largely limited to replacing liberal judges — and in a 50-50 Senate, he’ll have to make safe picks to avoid losing the support of moderate Democrats.