Law & the Courts

A Historic Year for the Federal Judiciary

President Trump shakes hands with Neil Gorsuch after nominating him for the Supreme Court, January 31, 2017. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
In 2017, the Senate evaluated and confirmed a record number of nominations to the circuit courts.

One of the most significant accomplishments in President Donald Trump’s first year will serve Americans for decades to come, yet it has received very little fanfare. In the months since taking the oath of office, Trump has sent a steady stream of impressive federal-court nominees to the Senate for our consideration. And the result has been historic.

After starting the year off with the confirmation of Neil M. Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Senate has focused much of its attention on evaluating Trump’s candidates for lower-court vacancies. All told, the Senate confirmed a record twelve nominees to appellate courts — more than have been confirmed in the first year of any president since the creation of the circuit courts in 1891.

But it should come as no surprise that filling judicial vacancies is an important priority for both the president and the Senate. During the lead-up to the presidential election, then-candidate Trump offered voters a unique window into his ideas for how best to execute one of the president’s most significant duties, duties, which has a lasting impact. By publicizing lists of potential Supreme Court nominees, Trump signaled to the nation that, if elected, he would focus on filling federal-court vacancies with highly respected legal minds who uphold the Founders’ original intentions and the letter of the law.

The job of a judge is to deliver justice based on the meaning of the law and the Constitution at the time they were adopted, rather than his or her own policy preferences. A judiciary that veers away from these constraints risks upsetting the balance of power that holds each branch of government in check. That’s why it is critical that we appoint and confirm fair-minded jurists who strictly adhere to the text of our founding documents and the laws passed by the people’s representatives in Congress. It’s critical not only for pursuit of justice but also for our system of government.

In the Senate, we’ve been hard at work fulfilling our constitutional “advice and consent” role in the nominations process.

Evaluating these nominations is serious business. Each nominee is thoroughly scrutinized by senators and staff who spend countless hours poring over nominees’ personal backgrounds, qualifications, and professional histories. In the Senate Judiciary Committee, nominees face questions under the bright lights, from both Republicans and Democrats. Nominees often must answer follow-up questions before the committee will cast a vote on whether to send the nomination to the full Senate for further evaluation. It’s a time-tested process that helps ensure that a nominee is fit to serve as a federal judge for life.

Despite a coordinated obstruction campaign by Democrats, the Senate confirmed 19 exceptionally well-qualified federal judges this year, including Justice Gorsuch and the record-setting twelve circuit-court judges. Together, they embody a legacy of jurists dedicated to interpreting the law and the Constitution as written regardless of their own policy preferences or personal views. After all, judges were never intended to be lawmakers in robes.

They also embody a diverse and well-rounded array of legal experience. Of the twelve newly minted circuit court judges, seven previously clerked for U.S. Supreme Court justices. Ten clerked at the federal appellate level. Five judges have prior experience on the bench at the federal district or state level. Judges Allison Eid, Joan Larsen, and Don Willett served as Supreme Court justices for their respective states. Half of the class served at various posts in the Justice Department, and five judges previously held state government positions in the legal discipline. Seven hail from academia, including Judges Joan Larsen and Stephanos Bibas. Judge Amul Thapar is the first South Asian appointed as a federal judge and the first appointed to the Sixth Circuit. Judge James Ho is the first Asian American appointed to the Fifth Circuit. All twelve earned their stripes in private practice, including many highly esteemed law firms.

We’ve accomplished a lot this year, but we still have a long way to go. We will continue to work with the president to evaluate and approve highly qualified nominees who will help ensure that the federal judiciary fulfills its proper role in our constitutional system.


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