Barring the unexpected, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson will be confirmed to the Supreme Court this week, capping a ten week nomination and confirmation process since Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement announcement in late January. While the Administration would likely take a (deserved) victory lap over Jackson’s confirmation, the most crucial period for securing Biden’s judicial legacy begins after.
While the Biden Administration came into office with comparatively few judicial vacancies to fill, a rash of Democratic appointees moving to senior status has created an opportunity for the Administration to leave a substantial imprint on the lower courts. Jackson’s confirmation will leave 24 lower court nominees left before the Senate, while pales in comparison to the 108 pending judicial vacancies listed on the U.S. Courts website. The situation is even more significant, given that many confirmed vacancies, including those by Third Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro, Ninth Circuit Judges Andew Hurwitz, Margaret McKeown, and Sidney Runyan Thomas, and D.D.C. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, are not public on the site yet. As such, the administration has around 90 vacancies on the federal bench with no nominees pending. Given that, fourteen months into his Presidency, Biden has yet to send 90 judicial nominees to the Senate, the Administration will have to move fast to have any hope of filling a substantial number of these vacancies.
Consider that the Administration has failed to name a single lower court judge to the bench since Judge Stephanie Davis was tapped two months ago. This is likely because the White House is strategically choosing to hold lower court nominations, including those that may be controversial, in order to avoid muddying the waters for Jackson. This means that the Biden Administration’s 82 nominees submitted to the Senate so far are slightly lower than the 98 judges nominated by President Bush and the 87 nominated by President Trump. Biden is particularly behind on circuit court nominations, having nominated 20, while Trump had made 25 as of this point in his Presidency, while President Bush had nominated 31. Even President Obama, rightfully criticized for a slow pace on nominations, had named 18 appellate nominees by April 1 of the second year of his presidency. With the Senate having confirmed 15 judges, only five of the 24 appellate vacancies currently pending have a nominee.
On the confirmation side, the Biden Administration has run far ahead of its immediate predecessors. For example, the Biden Administration has seen 58 judges confirmed so far, and the Trump Administration only saw 29 judges at this point in its Presidency, while the Obama Administration only saw 19. However, both prior Administrations had run behind their predecessors. Both the Clinton and Bush Administrations, for example, had seen 45-50 judges confirmed by this point in their Presidency, just slightly behind the Biden Administration.
However, on average, a judicial nominee in the Biden Administration has taken 4 months from nomination to confirmation. This means that, in order to be confirmed before the August recess (after which many Democratic senators may be absent campaigning in their home states), nominees need to be sent to the Senate now. Additionally, any nominees sent will likely also run into the limited space in Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, which typically occur every two weeks and include 4-6 nominees each. All this makes the next month or two crucial for nominations. Any nominee nominated later than early May may not see confirmation this year.
To be fair, none of this to say that the Biden administration hasn’t had a significant impact on the federal judiciary. One could argue that, given the bare majority they control, Democrats have outperformed expectations. However, the Administration now faces both an opportunity and a ticking clock. Due to a large number of judges moving to senior status, Biden could easily outperform the 30 judges that Trump was able to confirm to the courts of appeals in his first two years. However, for the Biden Administration to cement its judicial legacy, it will need to urgently snap back onto the lower courts. The first step might be if large batch of nominees, including 5-6 appellate picks, hits the Senate after the Jackson confirmation this week.