Judicial Nominations and Confirmations after Three Years—Where Do Things Stand?

Democrats groused in the Obama administration’s first two years about the slow pace of judicial nominations and Senate confirmation.*  By the end of the administration’s third year:

  • the pace of both nominations and confirmations has picked up, but district court vacancies have nevertheless increased noticeably, due partly to the still comparatively low number of nominations and confirmations but also due to an atypically large number of retirements;
  • President Obama’s appointment of district judges does not match his two predecessors at this point in their administrations, but he is doing better as to circuit judges;
  • he has already changed the face of the courts of appeals nationally and as to individual circuits in terms of the ratio of active judges appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents (a less-revealing variable than some think it is); and
  • he has continued the demographic diversification of the federal bench, and the decrease in the number of district judges appointed from private practice, a fact that may be linked to lengthening delays between nomination and confirmation.

Overall, from President Jimmy Carter’s administration to that of President George W. Bush, confirmation rates for circuit nominees have declined steadily (counting someone who was renominated in the same or different Congresses as a single nominee). District nominees’ confirmation rates, though, have hovered around the 90 percent mark (President George H.W. Bush’s district judge figures are misleading+).

* The data for this paper come partly from the Federal Judicial Center’s Biographical Directory of Federal Judges at, partly from data posted by the Administrative Office of U.S. courts at and partly from data I have collected. I welcome any and all corrections. Thanks to Christopher Ingraham of Brookings for the graphics.

+ The Senate confirmed 48 of 52 district nominees in 1989-90. It confirmed 101 of 147 1991-92 nominees; those 147 included some for over 70 district judgeships that Congress created in late 1990. (D. Rutkus and M. Sollenberger, Judicial Nomination Statistics: U.S. Circuit and District Courts, 1997-2003 at 15 (Congressional Reference Service, February 2004).