We are in the August recess, a little more than six months into the Biden Presidency. When President Biden came to office on January 20, 2021, there were 52 current and future vacancies in the federal judiciary. Since that time, an additional 73 vacancies have opened and nine nominees have been confirmed, leaving 116 vacancies pending (including future vacancies). There are currently 26 more judicial nominees pending, meaning that 22% of vacancies have nominees. In comparison, by the August recess of 2017, President Trump had nominees pending for around 20% of vacancies. Given the lull during the recess, now is a good time to look at the landscape of federal judicial nominations: vacancies open; nominations pending; prospective openings. Last week, we covered the states in the Northeast. We move on to the Atlantic Coast.
Court of Appeals
The fourteen judgeship Third Circuit, covering the states of Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, has ping-ponged between narrow majorities of Republican-appointed and Democrat-appointed judges over the last two decades. Nonetheless, it has maintained a reputation for collegiality and moderation. Currently, the court has four judges appointed each by Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump and two judges appointed by President Clinton. The Court has one vacancy for President Biden to fill, to be vacated by Clinton-appointee Theodore McKee upon confirmation of his successor. With McKee’s announcement coming just a couple of weeks ago, a nomination will likely not be made until October or November at the earliest.
Other than McKee, two judges are currently eligible for senior status. Chief Judge D. Brooks Smith, a moderate appointed by President Bush, has been a federal judge since 1988, has been eligible for senior status since 2016, has announced his selection as Penn State Law’s jurist in residence, and will end his tenure as Chief on December 4, 2021 (his 70th birthday). All of these signs suggest that Smith will either take senior status or retire upon the conclusion of his term as Chief, but this is, by no means, guaranteed. The other eligible judge is Clinton-appointee Thomas Ambro, who has made no indications that he plans to vacate his Delaware-based seat.
Furthermore, two more judges become eligible for senior status next year. Bush appointee Kent Jordan, based in Delaware, becomes eligible for senior status on October 24, 2022, and may choose to vacate his seat at that time. Obama appointee Joseph Greenaway has been a federal judge since 1996 and may choose to vacate his New Jersey based seat upon eligibility on November 16, 2022. Either way, it would not be surprising if an additional vacancy opened on the Third Circuit before the end of the 117th Congress.
In theory, the district court in the President’s home state is unlikely to see any vacancies this Congress. However, both Judges Leonard Stark and Maryellen Noreika have been proposed as nominees to the Federal Circuit, and both could also be considered for the Third Circuit if Ambro or Jordan moved to senior status. If either or both are nominated, the resulting vacancies could allow Biden to expand his impact on the local district court.
Due to a standoff between New Jersey Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker and the Trump Administration, no judges were appointed to the District of New Jersey in the last four years. As a result, when Biden came into office, six out of the seventeen judgeships on the court were vacant. Since then, Biden has filled two of the vacancies, with Judges Julien Neals and Zahid Quraishi. Two more nominees, Christine O’Hearn and Judge Karen Williams, are currently pending on the Senate floor, while two vacancies, both in Newark, remain without nominees.
Of the eleven active judges on the court, only one, Chief Judge Freda Wolfson, is eligible for senior status, although Judge Noel Hillman will hit eligibility on December 22 of this year. Wolfson, a Democrat appointed to the Court by President Bush, may choose to serve out her term as Chief (in 2024), while Hillman, another Bush appointee, has made no announcements about taking senior status.
Pennsylvania is divided into three district courts: the Eastern District, based in Philadelphia; the Western District, based in Pittsburgh; and the Middle District, based in Harrisburg. Traditionally, Pennsylvania senators divided judicial nominations on a 3-1 ratio, with the White House appointing one judge of the opposing party for three of their own party. Examples of cross-party appointments include Judges Yvette Kane and R. Barclay Surrick under President Clinton; Judges Legrome Davis, Timothy Savage, David Cercone, and C. Darnell Jones under Bush; Judges Matthew Brann, Jeffrey Schmehl, Edward Smith, and Jerry Pappert under Obama; and Judges Susan Baxter, Robert Colville, and John Milton Younge under Trump. This tradition is expected to continue under Biden.
Currently, there are four vacancies on the Eastern District, and one vacancy on the Middle District. Pennsylvania Senators Bob Casey, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican, opened applications for the Eastern District in January 2021 with a February 8 application deadline. They similarly opened applications for the Middle District vacancy in June 2021 with an application deadline of July 8, 2021. In the past, Casey and Toomey refrained from making their recommendations public, and, as such, no names are expected to come to light until announced by the White House.
In addition to the current vacancies, a number of judges are eligible for senior status. Specifically, Chief Judge Juan Sanchez, and Judges Cynthia Rufe, Gene Pratter, and Paul Diamond on the Eastern District are currently eligible to take senior status. Additionally, in October, Judge Robert Mariani on the Middle District becomes eligible for senior status. Judge Christopher Conner of the Middle District also reaches eligibility on October 25, 2022. In contrast, the Western District is unlikely to see any vacancies open this Congress, as the earliest any judge reaches eligibility is in 2024.
Court of Appeals
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals used to have a reputation as one of the most conservative courts in the country. However, after President Obama named seven judges to the court in his two terms, the Court underwent an ideological transformation. Today, the Court frequently divides into a 9-6 liberal-conservative divide in en banc votes. The Fourth Circuit currently is composed of Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, a Reagan appointee; Judge Paul Niemeyer, a George H.W. Bush appointee; Judges Diana Motz, Robert King, and Roger Gregory, Clinton appointees (although Gregory was confirmed as a George W. Bush appointee, he was recess appointed to the Court by President Clinton); Judge Steven Agee, a George W. Bush appointee; Judges Barbara Keenan, James Wynn, Albert Diaz, Henry Floyd, Stephanie Thacker, and Pamela Harris, Obama appointees; and Judges Julius Richardson, Marvin Quattlebaum, and Allison Rushing, Trump appointees.
Of the 15 judges on the court, eight are currently eligible for senior status, and a ninth becomes eligible next year. However, despite this, only one vacancy has been announced so far on the court, with Keenan taking senior status on August 31, 2021. Biden has already nominated Virginia Solicitor General Toby Heytens to replace Keenan. After a smooth confirmation hearing, Heytens is expected to reach the Senate floor in September, with a final confirmation vote by the end of October. Given the sheer number of Fourth Circuit judges who are eligible for senior status, it would not be surprising to see an additional vacancy or two open up before the end of the 117th Congress.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland has already undergone a change in the current Administration, as Biden has named two judges to the court: Lydia Griggsby and Deborah Boardman. In addition, the ten judgeship court has a third vacancy that awaits a nomination: with Judge Ellen Lipton Hollander taking senior status upon confirmation of a successor. A fourth vacancy could potentially open next year as Judge Paul Grimm becomes eligible for senior status on December 6, 2022.
While the three judicial districts that cover North Carolina (the Eastern, Middle, and Western) do not currently have any vacancies, two judges are eligible for senior status, Judge Terrence Boyle on the Eastern District, an appointee of President Reagan, and Judge Max Cogburn, an appointee of President Obama. As such, there remains the possibility that additional vacancies may open in North Carolina this Congress.
The U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina currently lacks judicial vacancies and only has one judge eligible for senior status, George H.W. Bush appointee David Norton. However, a vacancy may also open next year if Judge Juliana Michele Childs is elevated to the Fourth Circuit or if Judge Richard Gergel takes senior status upon reaching eligibility.
Divided between the Eastern and Western Districts, Virginia is served by 15 active judgeships. Currently, Virginia has three Clinton appointees, one Bush appointee, five Obama appointees, and four Trump appointees, with the remaining two judgeships vacant. Thanks to swift recommendations made by Virginia Senators, both vacancies have nominees: federal prosecutor Patricia Giles; and Magistrate Judge Michael Nachmanoff. However, an additional two vacancies are scheduled to open later year, when Judges James Jones and John Gibney move to senior status. Earlier this month, Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine recommended U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Ballou and Chief Federal Defender Juval Scott as prospective nominees to replace Jones on the Western District. Warner and Kaine also accepted applications to fill Gibney’s seat with a deadline of July 19, but no recommendations have been made yet.
Additional vacancies are also possible, as Judges Leonie Brinkema and Raymond Jackson on the Eastern District are eligible for senior status.
Despite being a small state, West Virginia is covered by two judicial districts, the Northern and Southern. Between them, the two districts have two judges appointed each by Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump. Of those judges, Judges Joseph Goodwin and Robert Chambers, the two Clinton appointees, and Judge John Bailey, a Bush appointee, are currently eligible for senior status. Additionally, Judge Irene Berger, an Obama appointee, joins them in eligibility next year. Given that fact, it would not be surprising if one or more vacancies opened in West Virginia before the end of the 117th Congress.
Court of Appeals
The oft-described “second highest court in the country”, the D.C. Circuit is considered by many to be the first among equals in the federal Courts of Appeal. As currently composed, the Court has eleven active judges, four appointed by President Obama, three by President Trump, two by President Clinton, and one each by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Biden. While Biden has already named Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to replace now-Attorney General Merrick Garland, he has a second vacancy to fill. Judge David Tatel, who has served on the court since 1994, announced in February his intent to take senior status upon the confirmation of a successor. So far, no nominee has been put forward to replace Tatel, unusual given that the D.C. Circuit does not require negotiating with home state senators before making a nomination.
Other than Tatel, two judges on the D.C. Circuit are currently eligible for senior status: Bush appointee Karen Henderson; and Clinton appointee Judith Ann Wilson Rogers. Both have been eligible for years and have declined to make the move under Presidents of both parties. While either could take senior status this Congress, it would not be surprising to see both continue to be active for a few more years.
Additionally, there is always the possibility that, if a vacancy opens on the U.S. Supreme Court, Jackson is elevated and Biden gains the opportunity to fill her seat and maintain the court’s narrow liberal majority.
District of Columbia
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is the sole trial court that feeds into the D.C. Circuit. It is also a court of many firsts: the first Article III trial court to have a female judge, and the first Article III trial court to have an African American judge. Today, the 15-member court has two vacancies, both with pending nominees on the Senate floor: D.C. Superior Court Judge Florence Pan; and civil rights attorney Jia Cobb. Of the remaining judges on the court, only one, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, is eligible for senior status. Barring any moves on her part, additional vacancies are unlikely.
Court of Appeals
The Federal Circuit is the newest kid of the block in terms of federal courts, having only been created in 1982. Unlike other federal courts of appeal, which hear appeals from geographic areas, the Federal Circuit is specialized by subject matter, hearing patent cases, as well as appeals from a variety of Article I and Article III tribunals. It is also the only circuit not to see a vacancy during the Trump Administration. However, so far, only eight months into the Biden Administration, it has already seen two. The first, opened by Judge Evan Wallach’s move to senior status in May, has already been filled by Judge Tiffany Cunningham. The second will open next March when Judge Kate O’Malley, an Obama appointee like Wallach, will retire. No nominee has been named for the second vacancy so far.
There is significant potential for additional turnover on the Federal Circuit. Setting aside O’Malley, another four judges on the Circuit are eligible for senior status: Judges Pauline Newman, Alan Lourie, Timothy Dyk, and Sharon Prost. Three of the four are over eighty years old, with one, Judge Newman, being 94 (and the oldest active judge on the Federal Courts of Appeal). Furthermore, Judge Jimmie Reyna, an Obama appointee, becomes eligible for senior status next year, creating another potential vacancy. To be fair, it is unlikely that all of these seats will open. However, the last time that the Federal Circuit had so many judges poised for senior status eligibility, in the late 2000s, then President Obama named seven judges to the Court. For his part, Biden already has the opportunity to name two and will likely get at least one more vacancy before the end of the 117th Congress.
Court of International Trade
The United States Court of International Trade adjudicates civil actions arising from customs and trade laws, and its cases feed into the Federal Circuit on appeal. The Court is composed of nine judges, and, by statute, no more than five of those can be of the same political party. As a result, Presidents frequently make cross-party appointments to avoid violating this threshold. Currently, the court has four Obama appointees, three Trump appointees, and two vacancies. There are currently two-cross party judges on the court: Obama appointee Jennifer Choe-Groves; and Trump appointee Timothy Reif. Thus, Biden cannot fill both vacancies on the court with Democrats. Of the judges serving on the bench, none is close to eligibility for senior status, which makes it unlikely that additional vacancies will open on the Court in the next year.
Court of Federal Claims
After years of chronic shortages, a surge of confirmations late in the Trump Presidency brought the Court of Federal Claims down to just three vacancies by the time Biden was sworn in. Since then, a fourth vacancy has opened with Judge Lydia Griggsby’s confirmation to the District of Maryland. Of the four vacancies, two have nominees: Armando Bonilla and Carolyn Lerner. With an overwhelming majority of the court having been appointed over the last two years, no new vacancies are expected on the court after the current ons are filled.