Federal Courts and Nominations

President Obama Outpaces Predecessors in Filling Judicial Posts

By Michel Crittenden


Partisan gridlock may have characterized President Barack Obama’s first six years in office, but that hasn’t stopped him from outpacing predecessors in one key area: judicial appointments.


An assessment of judicial nominations completed after the most recent session of Congress shows Mr. Obama got judicial nominees through the Senate at a higher rate than former presidents George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.


According to the Brookings Institution’s Russell Wheeler, Mr. Obama’s judicial confirmation rate over his first six years in office was 92%, compared to 84% for Mr. Bush and 89% for Mr. Clinton. Mr. Obama had 134 judicial nominees confirmed in 2013 and 2014 – the first two years of his second term – compared to 54 for Mr. Bush in 2005 and 2006, according to the Constitutional Accountability Center. Through six years of his presidency, Mr. Obama has had 307 judicial confirmations approved, compared to 324 by Mr. Bush through his entire presidency, the group said.


“His nominees solidified his judicial appointments as a legacy issue that will remain for decades after he’s out of office,” said Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center.


Responsibility for Mr. Obama’s success is owed in part to Senate rule changes, including the altering of  filibuster procedures by Democrats that allows executive branch and most judicial nominees to clear the Senate on a simple majority vote. Previously most nominees needed a 60-vote supermajority to clear the 100-member Senate. Federal trial and appellate judges are now approved on a majority vote, while a Supreme Court nominee could be subject to the supermajority hurdle.


Receiving less attention, but also important according to Mr. Kendall, was a January 2013 filibuster deal that reduced to two from 30 hours the amount of debate following a procedural vote on district court appointments.


That rule allowed Senate Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), to fit in more votes on district court nominations, including a last-minute flurry of confirmations before the Senate adjourned for the year. On Dec. 16, the final day the Senate was in session for 2014, twelve district court judges were approved.


“Sen. Reid is a master of procedure. If it wasn’t a two-hour process for debating there would have been no way to get those judges through,” Mr. Kendall said.


According to Mr. Wheeler, the 89 judicial confirmations that occurred in 2014 were the most in a year since 1994. Additionally, the 27 confirmations that occurred in the final weeks of Congress following the midterm election amounted to a more than 20-year high.

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