While the Georgia runoff still awaits, as of the writing of this article, Democrats have defied political history and maintained their razor-thin Senate majority past the midterm elections. With the loss of the House, Democrats are unlikely to pass transformative legislation in the next two years, freeing the Senate to prioritize nominations (where the House has no role). Court watchers will likely welcome this, as, despite historic successes with their razor-thin majority, the Biden Administration has little time to rest if it intends to fill a sizeable proportion of the 100+ lower court vacancies currently pending in the federal judiciary. Currently, there are sixteen circuit court vacancies and ninety-seven district court vacancies pending (including seats announced to be vacated but currently still full). In comparison, 56 judicial nominees are currently before the senate, twelve to circuit courts and 44 to district courts. As the Biden Administration and Senate Democrats turn to nominations and confirmations, it’s useful to look again at the current landscape.
As a reminder, the process for choosing circuit and district court nominees is fairly different. After the practice of requiring blue slips for appellate nominees was terminated during the Trump Administration, the Administration is under no obligation to secure pre-approval from home state senators before the nominee can receive a hearing. However, in practice, the Administration is still incentivized to consult with home state senators, which can slow down the nomination process, particularly in states with Republican senators.
Unlike circuit court vacancies, district court seats still require home state approval in order to be confirmed. This means that the ball is largely in the senators’ court in terms of naming nominees. This doesn’t mean that the Administration is completely absent from the process. It is still responsible for prodding senators, negotiating agreements, and choosing the right candidate. In fact, the Administration started right off the gate with an announcement that it expected recommendations for vacancies within 90 days of the announcement. This makes it all the more surprising the sheer number of district court seats that sit without nominees today.
This split is less surprising in states that only have Republican Senators, a group which includes thirty-five district court vacancies without nominees: six in Florida; five in Texas; three in Indiana and Louisiana; two each in Alabama, Missouri and Oklahoma; and one each in Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and Wyoming. Many of the home state senators in these states have been fairly open about their unwillingness to work with the Administration on a nominee. However, others have been more willing to be involved, with Iowa senators, for example, recommending U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Locher, a young Democrat, to the bench (Locher was swiftly and unanimously confirmed). The lone district court nominee in a 2-Republican state is also the most recent, Scott Colom in Mississippi.
Similarly, in states with split delegations, the White House understandably needs to move with the support of home state Republican senators. It has had mixed luck in the states it has tried this with. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman returned blue slips for three nominees who were confirmed (one more remains pending). Similarly, the White House was able to reach a four nominee deal with Sen. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania that included a nominee of his choice. In contrast, Sen. Ron Johnson has chosen to block a nominee that he previously signed off on.
Perhaps the most surprising in terms of vacancies without nominees are blue states or territories, where Democratic senators would presumably be incentivized to send recommendations quickly: yet, sixteen district court vacancies from blue states are nomineeless today, including four from California, three from New Jersey, two each from Connecticut, Illinois, and Michigan, and one each from Colorado, Maryland, and New York. A summary of this landscape follows:
D.C. Circuit – 1 vacancy out of 11 judgeships (one nominee pending)
The so-called “second highest court in the land”, the D.C. Circuit was the site of Biden’s first appointee when Jackson was confirmed to the court last June, a mere two months after her nomination. However, since that haste, a second vacancy languished for more than a year, taking nearly nine months after Judge David Tatel announced his departure from active status before Judge Michelle Childs was nominated, and taking Childs eight months to be confirmed. Jackson’s elevation to the Supreme Court reopened another vacancy, and the White House moved more quickly, elevating U.S. District Judge Florence Pan (confirmed in September). A fourth nominee, Brad Garcia remains pending on the Senate floor to fill the last remaining vacancy on the court, vacated by Judge Judith Ann Wilson Rogers.
The only district court that reports to the D.C. Circuit is the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The 15-judgeship court has one current vacancy, from Pan’s elevation, and one future vacancy, with Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly taking senior status upon confirmation of a successor. Nominees are pending for both vacancies with Ana Reyes currently awaiting a floor vote and Judge Todd Edelman having received a Judiciary Committee hearing last week.
First Circuit – 2 vacancies out of 6 judgeships (one nominee pending)
The smallest court of appeals in the country was also the sole geographically-based court not to see a single Trump appointment. Biden has already named Judge Gustavo Gelpi and Public Defender Lara Montecalvo to the court. Additionally, reproductive rights attorney Julie Rikelman is pending a vote before the Senate Judiciary Committee to replace Judge Sandra Lynch. The final seat, based in New Hampshire, was vacated by Judge Jeffrey Howard nearly nine months ago, and lacks a nominee. Given that New Hampshire has two Democratic senators, the lack of a nominee is puzzling.
The district courts covered by the First Circuit have five pending judicial vacancies, all of which have nominees. The District of Massachusetts has three current vacancies and three nominees pending, two of whom already have hearings.
The District Court for the District of Puerto Rico is down two judges, with nominees to fill the seats already on the Senate floor. A final Senate vote on Judge Camille Velez-Rive is expected next week, which should leave Judge Gina Mendez-Miro as the sole pending P.R. nominee.
Second Circuit – 1 vacancy out of 13 judgeships (one nominee pending)
Having replaced five left-leaning judges on the Second Circuit, the Biden Administration has already had a significant impact on the court. However, Justice Maria Araujo Kahn, nominated to replace 81-year-old conservative Jose Cabranes, remains pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee and has a long line of nominees ahead of her to be confirmed.
Connecticut, which saw three Biden appointees hit the bench last year, is one of the worse blue states when it comes to nomineeless vacancies, with two of the eight active judgeships vacant and no nominees on the horizon.
Meanwhile, the district courts in New York are also shortstaffed, with nine vacancies among them. The hardest hit is the Eastern District of New York, which has four vacancies out of sixteen judgeships, The bright side for the White House is that eight of the nine vacancies have nominees pending. The down side is that only three of the nominees are currently on the Senate floor (with one, Anne Nardacci, expected to be confirmed next week). Two of the longer pending nominees, Southern District of New York picks Dale Ho and Jessica Clarke, are currently bottled up in Committee, pending a discharge vote. Three more await hearings.
Third Circuit – 2 vacancies out of 14 judgeships (two nominees pending)
This moderate court currently has one Biden nominee confirmed (Arianna Freeman nominated to replace Judge Theodore McKee) but Judges Thomas Ambro and Brooks Smith don’t have replacements yet although nominees are pending on the Senate floor for both seats and should, if prioritized, be confirmed easily.
Two of the three states covered by the Third Circuit have judicial vacancies. The biggest number are in Pennsylvania, which has seven vacancies, four of which have nominees, the aforementioned four nominee deal. With Democrat John Fetterman replacing Toomey, it is likely that new recommendations will be sent out for the remaining vacancies and they will likely not be confirmed in the next few months.
The District of New Jersey, vacancy-ridden when the Biden Administration came to office, is now down to three seats left to fill. However, none of the three vacancies have nominees pending even though the oldest dates back seven months. With control of the Senate solidified, it is likely that New Jersey will see new district court nominees shortly.
Fourth Circuit – 2 vacancies out of 15 judgeships (one nominee pending)
The Fourth Circuit currently has vacancies out of South Carolina and Maryland. Judge DeAndrea Benjamin, nominated to the South Carolina seat, has home state senator support and will likely be confirmed easily in the new Congress. However, the bigger surprise is that a Maryland vacancy announced last December still lacks a nominee. Maryland’s Democratic senators have a mixed record in the speed of recommendations and a district court vacancy in the state announced last year also lacks a nominee.
In other states, Virginia has two nominees pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a final vote. Their confirmations would fill all the remaining vacancies on the state’s district courts.
Additional vacancies exist in North Carolina and South Carolina. Both North Carolina and South Carolina have two Republican senators, so any nominee will largely depend on the White House’s negotiations.
Fifth Circuit – 2 vacancies out of 17 judgeships (one nominees pending)
The ultra-conservative Fifth Circuit became even more so when the youngest Democrat on the Fifth Circuit, Judge Gregg Costa, unexpectedly announced his resignation from the bench. Nine months after Costa’s announcement, there is still no nominee pending to replace him, although Judge Dana Douglas, nominated to replace Octogenarian liberal James Dennis, is poised for confirmation after bipartisan support in the Judiciary Committee.
On the district court level, both Louisiana and Texas have multiple district court vacancies and no hint of any nominee. Mississippi, on the other hand, despite having only one vacancy, does have a nominee: Scott Colom. While Mississippi senators have not yet announced support for Colom, they have not expressed opposition either, suggesting that Colom might be, surprisingly, on track for confirmation.
Sixth Circuit – 1 vacancies out of 16 judgeships (one nominee pending)
Of the three vacancies on the Sixth Circuit that opened in the Biden Administration, only the Ohio based seat of Judge R. Guy Cole remains open. Rachel Bloomekatz, nominated to replace Cole, is awaiting a discharge vote in the Judiciary Committee. It remains to be seen if Sen. Sherrod Brown will push for Bloomekatz to receive a final Senate vote by the end of the year.
On the district court level, each of the four states under the Sixth Circuit have vacancies pending. After the White House’s proposal to nominate conservative lawyer Chad Meredith to the Eastern District of Kentucky fell through, there remains no nominee to replace Judge Karen Caldwell, although Caldwell has reaffirmed that she will only leave the bench if a conservative is appointed to replace her.
The Eastern District of Michigan has four pending vacancies and two nominees (one on the Senate floor). Michigan’s Democratic senators have been relatively slow in naming nominees, so it’s unclear when nominees will hit the Senate for the remaining vacancies.
The Southern District of Ohio has a single vacancy, with a nominee, Jeffery Hopkins, pending a Judiciary Committee vote. With Sen. Rob Portman set to be replaced by J.D. Vance, it is possible that Democrats will prioritize Hopkins in an effort to fill the seat before Vance’s input is needed.
Finally, a vacancy is pending on the Western District of Tennessee. The White House and Tennessee Senators battled over the Sixth Circuit nomination of Andre Mathis, and while the White House ultimately won confirmation, other seats could become casualties. Nonetheless, the White House has put forward U.S. Attorney nominees with senatorial support in the state, suggesting that some common ground can be reached to fill the vacancy.
Seventh Circuit – 2 vacancies out of 11 judgeships (one nominee pending)
In addition to naming Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi and Judge John Lee to the Seventh Circuit, Biden has the chance to add two more judges to the court. Judge Doris Pryor, currently pending on the senate floor, is likely to be confirmed before the end of the year. However, the second vacancy, opened by Judge Michael Kanne’s death, lacks a nominee. Given the support Indiana’s Republican Senators gave to Pryor, the White House is likely to grant them deference in turn in cchoosing a nominee to replace Kanne.
On the district court level, Illinois nominees Lindsay Jenkins and Colleen Lawless are pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Northern District of Illinois has two more vacancies that are likely to get nominees shortly.
Meanwhile, three vacancies are pending in Indiana without nominees. It is likely that the White House may lump these nominees into a package with the Kanne seat to allow for all the seats to be filled at once.
Wisconsin is likely a sign of frustration for the White House as Senator Ron Johnson has now blocked both a federal judge nominee and a U.S. Attorney nominee that he previously signed off on. With Johnson’s narrow re-election, it is likely that the nomination of Judge William Pocan is dead, and the White House and senators will have to renegotiate a new nominee to replace Judge William Griesbach.
Eighth Circuit – 0 vacancies out of 11 judgeships
While the Eighth Circuit remains the sole court of appeals not to see a vacancy open under Biden, there are a number of vacancies open in the district courts covered under the Circuit, including one each in Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota, and two pending in Missouri. Of these, only the seat in Minnesota has a nominee (Jerry Blackwell, who is awaiting a floor vote). Of the remaining vacancies, the White House has failed to nominate any U.S. Attorneys in those states, boding poorly for the likelihood of any agreement on judicial nominees.
Ninth Circuit – 1 vacancies out of 29 judgeships (one nominee pending)
Compared to other courts of appeals, the White House has had comparative success in confirming judges to the Ninth Circuit, naming six, with a seventh pending a judiciary committee vote. The district courts covered by the Ninth Circuit were equally successful for the White House, which has already confirmed 19 judges to (compared 14 judges that the Trump Administration named over four years).
An additional 13 nominees are currently pending to fill 19 vacancies, eight in California, four in Washington, and one in Oregon. Of the seats needing nominees, four are in California (two on the Central District and two on the Southern District). Another two are in Alaska and Idaho respectively, which have two Republican senators apiece.
Tenth Circuit – 1 vacancy out of 12 judgeships (one nominee pending)
The Kansas seat vacated by Judge Mary Briscoe is the oldest appellate vacancy in the country. Judge Briscoe announced her move to senior status in January 2021, and a nominee, Jabari Wamble, was announced in August 2022. Wamble has yet to have a Committee hearing but could, in theory, be confirmed early next year.
Among the states covered by the Tenth Circuit, there are eight district court vacancies, out of which two have nominees. Five of the six nomineeless vacancies are in states with two Republican senators, with particularly long-pending vacancies in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Utah, in particular. Given the nomination of Wamble in Kansas and the successful confirmation of Trina Higgins to be U.S. Attorney in Utah, it is possible that the White House is able to reach an agreement with senators to fill the vacancies shortly.
Eleventh Circuit – 1 vacancy out of 12 judgeships (one nominee pending)
Judge Beverly Martin announced her retirement from the Eleventh Circuit in July, ultimately leaving the court in late September. The Biden Administration nominated civil rights attorney Nancy Abudu to the court in December, but then unwittingly delayed Abudu’s hearing by quixotically claiming that she was under Supreme Court consideration. While no serious observer believed that Abudu would be nominated to the Supreme Court, her consideration ensured that Abudu’s nomination would not be processed until a nominee was named. Furthermore, Abudu’s nomination proved deeply controversial and deadlocked in Committee, forcing a discharge vote that has yet to occur. Given the risk to Abudu’s nomination if Warnock were to lose, it is likely that Democrats would seek to prioritize her nomination if the runoff went poorly.
On the district court level, Alabama has two pending vacancies, one from the elevation of Judge Andrew Brasher in the Trump Administration, and the second from Judge Abdul Kallon’s untimely resignation. Both lack nominees as outgoing Republican senator Richard Shelby expressed his opposition to any left-of-center nominee. With Shelby’s retirement and the election of Katie Britt to the Senate, it remains to be seen if a package can be reached (it’s possible that Alabama senators may demand the renomination of Trump nominee Edmund LaCour.
Meanwhile, Florida has more nominee-less vacancies than any other state: six. Both Senator Marco Rubio and Florida’s Democratic House delegation recommended attorney Detra Shaw-Wilder (a Democrat) to the Southern District of Florida last year, but no nominee has hit the Senate yet. The recent announcements of U.S. Attorney nominees to two of the three open positions in Florida, however, could presage a thaw in negotiations over the state’s appointments.
On one side, one could argue that the Senate has plenty of time to fill these vacancies, as well as more that will inevitably open over the next two years. After all, despite a packed legislative calendar, the Senate has already confirmed eighty-five nominees (and will likely confirm more before the end of the Congress). However, it’s also important to recognize the fragility of the Democrat’s narrow majority. Just because 50 members held together over the last two years is no guarantee that it will last another two. In a sense, winning the Georgia runoff and securing a 51st seat will be all the more important for Democrats if they seek to rival Trump’s judicial legacy.