For those of us desperate for any good news, any glimmer of hope that America might eventually emerge from the purgatory into which we’ve been plunged by the MAGA party, a newsletter from the Brennan Center recently offered that glimmer. (No link, sorry.)
On September 30, President Biden announced ten more federal court nominees, bringing the administration’s total number of nominees to 53. Biden also announced four nominees to serve on local D.C. courts.
Biden’s eighth slate of nominees includes two civil rights lawyers and three current or former public defenders. Several of the nominees, if confirmed, would also mark historic firsts: the first Asian American man on the Western District Court of Washington, the first Asian American woman on the Southern District Court of California, and the first Hispanic district court judge in Ohio.
According to CNN, more than 25% of Biden’s nominees to date are Black, 21% are Hispanic or Latino, and 23% are Asian American or Pacific Islanders. Close to 75% are women. In addition, 32% of Biden’s judicial nominees are former public defenders and 25% are civil rights lawyers.
Biden is confirming judges at a rate faster than any other president at this point in their term since Richard Nixon, according to Bloomberg Law. Sixteen of Biden’s judicial nominees have been confirmed so far.
I feared–and still fear–that Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump had ensured a generation in which the federal courts would be lost to principles of justice and equality. After all, they did manage to elevate a number of ideological and, frequently, demonstrably unqualified partisans to those courts. The Biden Administration is clearly aware of the need to ensure the ongoing integrity of the courts, and equally aware of the need to populate the bench with Americans who are both competent and representative of the country as a whole.
So–good news. I’ll take it.
Unfortunately, all the emerging reports about America’s courts are not as positive as that one. That same newsletter relayed the conclusions of an investigation by the Wall Street Journal that found 130 federal judges had violated U.S. law and judicial ethics by “overseeing court cases involving companies in which they or their family owned stock.”
The Journal reported that between 2010 and 2018, 129 federal district court judges and two federal appellate judges had failed to recuse themselves from 685 cases in which they or their families had a financial conflict, and that approximately two-thirds of the rulings subsequently favored the judges’ or their family’s financial interests.
One of the reasons for this country’s current angst is the public’s loss of trust in the institutions of American government. Trump certainly accelerated suspicion of government bureaucrats with his paranoia about the “deep state,” and he fed a wide variety of conspiracy theories, but much of the loss of trust preceded him. (My book, Distrust American Style, was published in 2009, and the phenomenon was anything but new.) Confidence in the administration hit an all-time low under Trump (and for good reason), but Congress has been utterly feckless for well over a decade.
The courts were, for a time, the holdout.
With McConnell’s success in remaking the Supreme Court into an instrument of partisanship, and four years of appointments of partisan hacks (mostly White men) to the federal bench, those of us who’ve been paying attention lost hope that the courts would salvage constitutional principles–or at the very least, stem the tide.
I doubt that the Biden Administration has the political capital to do what very clearly needs to be done: either enlarge the Supreme Court or impose limits on Justices’ terms of service. Scholars of the judiciary have been advocating various mechanisms for expanding the Court for years–far preceding McConnell’s mischief–for reasons of efficiency; they’ve also been advocating term limits in recognition of the fact that Justices live much longer than they used to. (Terms of 18 years, the usual recommendation, would probably be long enough to insulate Justices from political pressure– the original reason for lifetime appointments.)
In the absence of meaningful structural change, the nakedly partisan makeup of the Supreme Court is likely to keep trust in the courts low–leaving discontented citizens with nowhere to turn for redress of grievances.
Of course, speaking of “redress of grievances,” we might remind folks that there is this thing called the ballot box…