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. We finish with the states of the West.
Court of Appeals
In terms of the number of judges on the court, the geographic area covered, and the population served, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is the largest in the country. The whopping twenty-nine judgeship court has been the target of many attempts to break it up, ostensibly due to its liberal leanings. Whatever its previous leanings (the Ninth was never as liberal as critics alleged), the current court is fairly evenly divided between liberals and conservatives. The court currently has ten judges appointed by President Trump, nine Clinton appointees, seven Obama appointees, and three Bush appointees. While the court is currently full, four Clinton appointees, Susan Graber, Marsha Berzon, Richard Paez, and William Fletcher, have announced their intention to move to senior status upon confirmation of successors. Only Graber’s seat has a nominee, labor lawyer Jennifer Sung.
Additional vacancies are likely as eight other judges on the court are eligible for senior status: Clinton appointees Sidney Runyan Thomas, Margaret McKeown, Kim McLane Wardlaw, Ronald Gould, and Johnnie Rawlinson; and Bush appointees Consuelo Callahan, Milan Dale Smith, and Sandra Segal Ikuta. Additionally, Obama appointee Andrew Hurwitz will also become eligible for senior status next July. The most likely of these judges to take senior status is Chief Judge Thomas, who may make the move once he concludes his term as Chief on December 1. Of the Bush appointees, the moderate Smith, who will be eighty next year, is the most likely to take senior status.
The District of Alaska has three active judgeships, currently filled by Chief Judge Timothy Burgess, a Bush appointee, Judge Sharon Gleason, an Obama appointee, and Judge Joshua Kindred, a Trump appointee. Of the three, only Burgess is eligible for senior status. He is, however, unlikely to move to senior status before his term as Chief ends in 2022.
The District of Arizona is one of the most overworked courts in the country, with heavy caseloads. Luckily, after years of chronic vacancies, all judgeships on the court are currently full, with one Bush appointee, seven Obama appointees, and five Trump appointees serving. No vacancy is expected before 2024, when Chief Judge Murray Snow, and Judges Douglas Rayes and James Soto all become eligible for senior status. However, if Judge Andrew Hurwitz moves to senior status upon eligibility next year, Judge Rosemary Marquez may be selected to replace him, opening up a seat for Biden to fill.
The nation’s most populous state also has the most district court judgeships serving its population, sixty one, divided into four districts: the Central, Northern, Eastern, and Southern. Despite the high numbers, California’s district courts are, if anything, understaffed in proportion to their caseload. This is particularly true now, as the courts have a whopping 18 vacancies with an additional two set to open next year. California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla have each claimed to have sent recommendations to the White House, but it’s an open question when nominees will hit the senate.
The largest of the four districts is the Central, based in Los Angeles. Currently, the court is served by 22 active judges, eight appointed by Bush, seven by Obama, four by Trump, two by Clinton, and one by Reagan. There are also six vacancies, with the oldest going back to 2015. Additionally, a seventh vacancy will open in February 2022 when Judge Virginia Phillips moves to senior status. Of the remaining 21 judges, nine are eligible for senior status: Reagan appointee Stephen Wilson; Clinton appointee David Carter; Bush appointees Percy Anderson, John Walter, Gary Klausner, Dale Fischer, Otis Wright, and George Wu; and Obama appointee John Kronsdadt. This makes future vacancies on the court fairly likely.
While the Sacramento based Eastern District is, with six judgeships, the smallest in California, it is also severely overworked. This is particularly true as it is currently having only four active judges carry the burden as the remaining two seats are vacant. Unless judges are confirmed swiftly, the situation will get worse next year when Judge John Mendez takes senior status.
The Bay area based Northern District of California has eleven active judges serving, all appointees of President Obama. An additional three seats are vacant. While none of the active judges is eligible for senior status, two, Edward Davila and Edward Chen, will become eligible for senior status next year and may move then.
Finally, the San Diego based Southern District of California is the hardest hit of all the California courts when it comes to vacancies, as seven of the thirteen judgeships are vacant. Of the remaining six active judges, one, Judge Janis Sammartino, is eligible for senior status and could choose to make the move.
The four judgeship District of Hawaii does not currently have any vacancies and no new vacancies are expected, with the first judges to hit senior status eligibility doing so in 2024.
One of only two states to be served by just two active judgeships, Idaho is currently at half-capacity with Judge B. Lynn Winmill’s move to senior status in August. Winmill gave plenty of notice of his intention to take senior status, and the Idaho Democratic Party recommended four candidates to replace Winmill in March: Idaho Falls attorney DeAnne Casperson; former U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson; and Boise attorneys Keely Duke and Deborah Ferguson. Idaho Senator Mike Crapo indicated that his office has had many “preliminary” conversations regarding the judgeship with the White House and that they are working to find a mutually agreeable nominee.
While none of the three active judges in the District of Montana, all Obama appointees, are eligible for senior status, Judge Dana Christensen becomes eligible for senior status in December and may choose to make the move at that time.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada has two vacancies among its seven judgeships, with the remaining five judges all appointed by President Obama and years from taking senior status. The two pending vacancies on the District Court, one in Reno and one in Las Vegas, are both over three years old. Nevada Senators set up judicial nomination commissions to fill the vacancies with application deadlines of February 28, 2021. Since then, there has been no public recommendations made and the White House has not yet sent any nominations to the Senate.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon has six active judgeships: three Obama appointees, and one appointee each from Clinton, Bush, and Trump. The Court will have a vacancy open on December 27 of this year when Bush appointed Judge Michael Mosman takes senior status. Clinton appointee Ann Aiken is also eligible for senior status but has made no indication that she intends to take it. So far, there has not been any word on recommendations by Oregon Senators to replace Mosman.
After an agreement over judicial nominations fell apart during the Trump Administration, Washington’s district courts saw no confirmation over the last four years. As a result, the Western District of Washington now has five vacancies out of seven active judgeships, with one future vacancy set to open on the Eastern District. So far, nominees have been submitted to the Senate for three vacancies on the Western District, and for the lone Eastern District vacancy. All three Western District nominees are awaiting final Senate votes, with Judge David Estudillo being teed up for confirmation in September. So far, there is no timeline on nominees for the remaining two vacancies.
Additionally, the two active judges remaining on the Western District: Judges Richard Jones and Ricardo Martinez, are also eligible for senior status, so additional vacancies may open as the current ones are filled.
Court of Appeals
The Tenth Circuit, based in Denver, is considered a moderate court, evenly divided between five Republican and five Democrat appointed judges, with two vacancies. The Senate is poised to confirm public defender Veronica Rossman to fill a Colorado vacancy on the court in September. The other vacancy, based in Kansas, is still without a nominee.
Of the remaining judges on the court, only Judge Harris Hartz, appointed by President George W. Bush, is eligible for senior status. While Chief Judge Timothy Tymkovich, another Bush appointee, will reach eligibility for senior status in November, he is unlikely to take senior status without serving out his term as Chief in 2022. Additionally, Judge Scott Matheson, an Obama appointee, becomes eligible for senior status at the end of 2022, and may also make the move.
The seven judgeship District of Colorado is undergoing a significant transformation, with Biden already having appointed Judge Regina Rodriguez to the court, and having nominated Charlotte Sweeney for a second vacancy. A third vacancy is set to open in 2022 when Judge Christine Arguello moves to senior status. The only other vacancy that could open this Congress could occur when Judge William Martinez reaches eligibility for senior status at the end of 2022.
The District of Kansas currently has all six judgeships filled, although Judge Julie Robinson, a George W. Bush appointee, is set to take senior status on January 14, 2022. So far, there has been no public application period or recommendation noted for Robinson’s seat. Judge Eric Melgren, another Bush appointee, also reaches eligibility in 2022 but has so far made no indications of taking senior status.
The seven-judgeship District of New Mexico is one of the busiest courts in the country. The Court currently has two vacancies, with a third set to open with Judge Martha Vazquez’s move to senior status next year. New Mexico Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan submitted nominees to fill the two existing vacancies in January 2021, but so far the White House has only nominated one nominee: Margaret Strickland. Strickland is currently the longest pending judicial nominee waiting on the Senate floor, and, although Majority Leader Schumer filed cloture on three pending nominees before the August recess, he skipped over Strickland.
The situation could potentially become worse as Judge James Browning is also eligible for senior status, although he has not indicated that he will take it. If Browning and Vazquez vacate their seats, this could leave the District of New Mexico with less than half of its allotted judgeships full.
The Oklahoma District Courts currently have one vacancy, from Judge John Dowdell’s early move to senior status earlier this year. So far, no public process has started to replace Dowdell.
The five judgeship District of Utah, composed of three Obama appointees and two Trump appointees, will see a vacancy open next year when Judge David Nuffer takes senior status. So far, there is no public replacement process for Judge Nuffer.
The three-judge District of Wyoming already has a vacancy pending, as Judge Nancy Freudenthal has announced her intention to take senior status on June 1, 2022. As Wyoming has no Democrats in the Congressional delegation, the White House will have to work with Republican Senators John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis. During the Obama Administration, Barrasso endorsed and supported Fredeunthal and Chief Judge Scott Skavdahl, but it’s unclear if a similar accommodation would be reached today. Additionally, Judge Alan Johnson, who is 82, and is one of the few actively serving Reagan appointees, may also take senior status, opening up a second vacancy and potentially opening the door to a one-for-one deal.