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U.S. President Donald Trump looks on during a commercial break during a live one-hour NBC News town hall forum with a group of Florida voters in Miami, Florida, U.S., October 15, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria (REUTERS)
U.S. President Donald Trump looks on during a commercial break during a live one-hour NBC News town hall forum with a group of Florida voters in Miami, Florida, U.S., October 15, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria (REUTERS)

How Trump reset the Federal judiciary

  • While most presidents have influenced the courts, Trump has substantially shifted the judiciary with Republican appointees

As the Senate considers President Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, her confirmation could shift the court’s balance of power further to the right, extending a broad effort to appoint federal judges by the president and fellow Republicans.

Mr. Trump has substantially overhauled the federal judiciary—a bit more than half the judges now are Republican appointees, up from 42% when he took office.

While most presidents have influenced the courts through the appointment of Article III judges—those who serve for life after being confirmed by the Senate—Mr. Trump’s pace in transforming the judiciary over four years has been relatively brisk compared with his predecessors.

If Mr. Trump wins four more years in office and Republicans hold the Senate, the GOP’s footprint on the judiciary would almost certainly expand. If Democrat Joe Biden wins and the Senate flips to Democratic control, that party would have an opportunity to tip the balance again.

One place where Mr. Biden could start would be the 56 district court vacancies, though it is possible Mr. Trump and Senate Republicans would attempt to fill many of them in a lame-duck session after the election.

District Court Judges

Mr. Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) have made a priority of filling the federal bench with conservative appointees, installing 157 federal district court judges through the high number of vacancies pending when Barack Obama left office.

As majority leader, Mr. McConnell refused to move forward with many of the former president’s nominees. According to an analysis by the Brookings Institution, Mr. Obama was able to fill only 18 district judgeships in the final two years of his presidency while Mr. McConnell was Senate majority leader, far fewer than his Republican predecessors who also faced a Senate controlled by the opposing party in their final two years in office.

The 677 district judgeships make up the primary portion of the federal judiciary, overseeing all federal civil and criminal trial cases throughout the 94 districts across every state, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.

Appeals Court Judges

Since Mr. Trump took office, the Senate has confirmed 53 judges to the federal appeals courts, filling every vacancy and tipping the balance toward Republican-appointed judges in three of the country’s 13 appellate court circuits.

Republican-appointed judges now make up the majority in seven of the circuit courts.

Twelve federal circuits oversee different regions of the country, hearing challenges to district court decisions. They are the last judicial stop before cases that are heard by the Supreme Court.

A separate Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear special cases on topics such as patents.

Judicial Demographics

About 24% of Mr. Trump’s appointments have been women, while 15% have been nonwhite. Both those figures are lower than Mr. Obama’s judicial appointments but higher than some other predecessors.


While Supreme Court decisions have arguably the most enduring impact on federal law, the vast majority of cases that enter the federal judicial system never make it to the high court and end with a decision at the lower levels.

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