Trump, California, and the U.S. Federal Court System
The wisdom of then Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s decision to change centuries-old Senate rules to allow a simple majority vote for appeals and district court justices was clearly warned against. Many Republicans plainly stated to Democrats: do not do this. Reid’s 2013 move reset the threshold for circuit and appeals judicial confirmation from 60 senate votes to 51 (It also set in motion a change in Supreme Court confirmations to the same 51 vote threshold stewarded by current Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell).
One of the most intriguing fallouts from Reid’s fateful decision is the battle within the confirmation battle that is raging in the Senate Judicial Committee’s mission to confirm judicial nominees. This smaller engagement appears to be very apparent, not only the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but to three of the four district courts in California. Arguably, California is the leading liberal state in the U.S. Sacramento absolutely comports itself as such with supermajorities in both legislative houses and the governorship and most (if not all) statewide elected offices.
Then came the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States. He was very clear early on in his campaign that the Federalist Society was going to provide the resource pool for his judicial nominees. Well, that impact was definitely felt in the push to confirm judges for the Appellate Courts in the U.S. The effect in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was immense. No other President has had more of his nominees confirmed than President Trump. He has had ten nominees confirmed to that appellate court, meaning over 30% of that court are Trump nominees. Given that quite a few current justices sitting in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals were born in the early to mid-1940s, there may well be more confirmed if President Trump wins reelection in November.
This brings us to the four federal court districts in the state of California (Northern District, Central District, Eastern District, and Southern District) and the incredible number of vacancies and the avalanche of Trump nominees awaiting confirmation for those vacancies. The Northern District’s (where San Francisco is located) configuration is currently dominated by Democrat-nominated justices. Obama-nominated justices currently hold 11 out of the 14 seats in this federal district. Well, the rest of the district courts are an entirely different matter. The current configuration of the Central District (where Los Angeles is located) is 50/50 Republican to Democrat nominated justices. If you examine the vacancies listed in this district, it is substantial. The Senate is, right now, undertaking a confirmation process that is moving to place several more Trump appointees in these vacancies and that will remake of the body of this district court to be dominated by Republican appointees. The exact same dynamic is true of California’s Southern District Court (San Diego is located here). The current 50/50 configuration of this court’s appointees with a large amount of vacancies poised to be filled by President Trump will solidify the Southern District with Republican Appointees. The Eastern District court is currently three justices to two in favor of Democrat nominated appointees. There are currently two vacancies poised to be filled by Trump nominees. Clearly, President Trump will shift the federal judicial balance of power in three of the four California federal court districts to Republican-appointed judges.
Without beating a dead horse, these confirmations can substantially alter the judicial outcomes and precedents in, arguably, the center of American liberalism for decades to come. Given the leadership of the Senate Judicial Committee, I have to wonder if this is playing out in Democrat efforts to stall Trump’s march of judicial appointees. Lindsey Graham, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been steadfast in his push of getting these nominees appointed. Those have slowed in recent months for a few obvious reasons. Part and parcel among these reasons is the identity of the Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Diane Feinstein. In essence, Senator Feinstein has had a front-row seat and was rather helpless to stop a substantial remake of California’s federal court districts’ and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ judicial composition. It is hard to ignore the fact that millions of dollars from California have been expended in South Carolina’s Senate contest in favor of Graham’s Democrat opponent, Jaime Harrison. Eliminating the guy who is orchestrating the judicial shift in your home state seems like a solid strategy.
Finally, when Harry Reid announced his retirement from the Senate, Senator Feinstein released a statement that is a coup de grâce of ironic comments regarding the judicial shift in California. She stated, “The nation is better off because of Harry Reid." Probably not for what she was thinking… but here we are.
Image: Tim Evanson