Whether or not he is re-elected, Donald Trump will be revered by conservatives for his judicial appointments. As of March, Trump has appointed 193 judges to the federal bench, with another 39 pending on the floor of the Senate or in the Senate judiciary committee. Those nominations will surely be acted on favorably by the Senate before 20 January 2021, when there may be a new president and a new Senate. There are another 38 district court vacancies awaiting nominations. In one presidential term, Trump may appoint up to 270 federal judges, or 31% of the entire federal judiciary. For perspective, Barack Obama appointed 329 in eight years.
There is no doubt that the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, will confirm Trump’s appointments until the very last day of his term. This is of course the same Senate gatekeeper who infamously blocked Obama’s final supreme court nomination, Merrick Garland, for an entire year – on the ground that in the final year of a presidency, the Senate should await “the will of the people” in the upcoming general election. But that was then. The rules have apparently changed. McConnell will pack the courts with “right-thinking” ideologues who will carry out Trump’s agenda long after he has been subjected to the scorn of historical scrutiny.
We now know a lot about Trump’s judicial appointments. Eighty-five per cent are white and 76% are male. This is a significant step backward. Obama’s judicial appointments were 64% white and 58% male. Today, after more than three years of Trump’s appointments, the federal judiciary is 73% white and 66% male, but it will be even more male and pale by the end of his term. Even more troubling is the average age of the Trump judges. According to Brookings, the median age of Trump’s judicial appointments by the beginning of his fourth year in office is 48.2. By the same time in his presidency, the median age of Obama’s appointees was 57.2. This means that Trump judges will serve, on average, for 10 years more than the Obama judges.
Statistics only tell part of the story. More important is the impact of these statistics on the critical issues that face the courts now and in the future. Courts should reflect the people they serve. I served as a federal district judge for 22 years. The vast majority of criminal defendants (in non-white-collar cases) were either African American or Hispanic, as were their family members. Plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases were overwhelmingly women, minorities or persons with disabilities. The same was true in actions involving prisoner rights, voting rights, housing discrimination and public benefits. Not all cases involve big corporations and business disputes.
A diverse bench engenders trust and credibility. Many studies have shown that decision-makers reach better decisions when they bring a variety of experiences to their analysis. A 36-year-old lawyer who has never tried a case, has not represented individual clients, and has not spent years facing life’s challenges is not well-positioned to decide on the length of a prison term, the need for access to healthcare, abortion, food stamps, Medicare or housing, or the impact of pollution or discrimination on working people’s quality of life. It is for this reason the American Bar Association’s standing committee on the federal judiciary insists that a candidate for judicial office have at least 12 years of experience practicing law – not talking about it as a speech writer, lobbyist or media star.
When I was appointed to the bench I was 48. I had been a federal prosecutor, a defense lawyer, and had handled many civil cases in trial and appellate courts. That experience was invaluable. I knew both the substance and procedure of federal practice. The same cannot be said of many of Trump’s nominees, whose only qualifications appear to be their consistently rightwing voting records.
Consider the following four Trump judges, all of whom were appointed in their 30s. What they have in common is not their legal experience, but their outspoken support of Trump’s political agenda. All were members of the Federalist Society or other rightwing organizations, clerked for conservative judges, and have written articles or advocated for legal positions that are vastly out of step with most Americans.
Allison Rushing was 36 when she was confirmed to a seat on the fourth circuit court of appeals, 11 years after graduating from law school, and Trump’s youngest nominee to a circuit court judgeship. She clerked for then-circuit judge Neil Gorsuch and for Justice Clarence Thomas. Her law practice during the remaining nine years was limited to representing big corporations at one of the nation’s largest law firms.
Andrew Brasher was 38 when he was confirmed to a seat on the 11th circuit court of appeals, after serving for only nine months on the district court for the middle district of Alabama. In the years just before his appointment he served as Alabama’s solicitor general, often advocating for rightwing causes.
Justin Walker, best known for his full-throated defense of Brett Kavanaugh (for whom he clerked), was appointed as a district judge in the western district of Kentucky, at 37, just 10 years after graduating law school. He is a protege of Mitch McConnell, who held up debate on a Covid-19 relief bill to attend Walker’s induction ceremony. Less than six months after Walker took the bench, Trump announced that he intended to nominate him for an upcoming vacancy on the DC court of appeals.
Patrick Wyrick was 38 when he was confirmed as a judge for the western district of Oklahoma. Four years after graduating law school he became the solicitor general of Oklahoma. He is a protege of Scott Pruitt, the disgraced former head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
One of these judges could easily end up on the supreme court; two are known to be on the shortlist. All will probably still be on the bench 40 years from now. That alone should make voters think hard about the upcoming presidential election. As the saying goes: elections have consequences.
Shira A Scheindlin served as a United States district judge for the southern district of New York for 22 years. She is the co-chair of the oard of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and a board member of the American Constitution Society.”