Mike Pence’s eyes twinkled with the applause line he was about to deliver. Speaking in Washington on Wednesday at an annual conference of the Federalist Society, the conservative legal group, the vice-president had great news to share.
Earlier that day, the Senate had confirmed yet another circuit court judge nominated by Donald Trump, bringing his grand total to 38, neatly doubling the 19 judges at that level that Barack Obama saw confirmed by the same stage of his presidency.
But Pence had an even juicier number to boast of: the week before, thanks to a flurry of activity in the Senate engineered by the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, the number of confirmed Trump appointees to federal judgeships had hit triple digits.
“This president has actually appointed more than 100 men and women to our federal courts, including more circuit court judges than any president in American history,” said Pence, slowing his pace to deliver the kicker: “And they are all conservatives who are committed to the principles enshrined in the constitution of the United States!”
Pence was drowned in applause before he could finish the sentence. But watchdog groups warn that by “conservative”, Pence was referring to more than just a particular flavor of jurisprudence.
He meant judges eager to see through fundamental changes in American life, from the criminalization of abortion to the gutting of LGBTQ rights and environmental protections, the reversal of healthcare reform, the sidelining of workers and the endorsement of religious discrimination.
“These nominees have records of working tirelessly to undermine access to healthcare, access to reproductive rights for women, who want to undermine critical protections for workers, for clean air and clean water that consumers rely on,” said Daniel Goldberg, the legal director at the Alliance For Justice.
“The people who are going to suffer are the millions of people around the country who rely on these critical, essential legal rights and protections that for the next three or four decades are going to be seriously eroded.”
The process of nominating and confirming federal judges can seem banal. For each time a particularly controversial nominee draws protesters to the Capitol and sets off a national debate, as supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh did, dozens of lesser nominees pass through unremarked.
But even for lower-level nominees, the stakes are high. While the supreme court typically rules in fewer than 100 cases each year, appellate courts decide about 50,000, making them the last stop for justice in almost every case.