The Republican Party’s takeover of the federal judiciary is almost complete.
The strategy, executed to near-perfection by Senate Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley, was simple: Stall as many nominees chosen by President Barack Obama as possible. Then, by either disregarding or outright changing the Senate rules governing the confirmation process, rush through President Donald Trump’s nominees.
So far, that strategy has worked. Trump has already appointed two Supreme Court justices—though one of those appointments was rightfully Obama’s—along with a fifth of the sitting circuit court of appeals judges. Now, Republicans have set their sights on the district courts. There are more than 100 vacancies left, and monied interests are champing at the bit to handpick Trump’s nominations to fill them.
At the beginning of the month, McConnell invoked the “nuclear option” to permanently limit the amount of time senators can debate most nominees from 30 hours to just two. The change doesn’t apply to Supreme Court nominees or circuit court nominees but will allow Republicans to advance district court nominees at lightning speed. And the result will likely be disastrous for progressive causes.
District court judges are on the front lines of federal court litigation. They are the trial judges who decide, for example, whether anti-choice restrictions designed to close abortion clinics can be allowed to take effect while those restrictions are challenged in court. A district court judge issues factual findings in litigation that circuit courts consider on appeal. This latest move by McConnell all but ensures that judges hostile to causes like voting rights, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ equality will help shape the law around those issues.
Trump commented on the phenomenon last March, seemingly confused as to how he got so lucky.
“When I got in, we had over 100 federal judges that weren’t appointed. I don’t know why Obama left that. It was like a big, beautiful present to all of us. Why the hell did he leave that?” Trump asked.
“It was like the gift from heaven. We were left judges,” Trump continued. “They are the ones that judge all your disputes. They judge on what’s fair on the environment and what’s not fair. Where they’re going to take your farms and factories away and where they’re not.”
It wasn’t a gift from heaven, however. It was a gift from McConnell and Grassley—who, after Republicans wrestled control of the Senate from Democrats in 2014, immediately ground to a halt Obama’s efforts to confirm judicial nominees to make way for the next Republican president. That president turned out to be Trump.
Alliance for Justice, a progressive judicial advocacy group, analyzed the devastating impact Trump has already had on the federal judiciary in a recent report. It’s terrifying. Most of Trump’s picks are white men committed to the destruction of federal agencies, the disenfranchisement of people of color and other reliably Democratic voters, the rollback of consumers’ right to hold corporations accountable when they harm people, and the decimation of civil and human rights—including the right to abortion care. And many of them are incompetent: In fact, Trump has nominated more judges deemed “unqualified” by the American Bar Association than any other president at this stage in their administration.
If that doesn’t scare you, it should.