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 fjc.gov, partly from data posted by the Administrative Office of U.S. courts at uscourt.gov 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).
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President López Obrador's extension of the term of Supreme Court chief Arturo Zaldívar is part of his strong effort to recentralize power in the Mexican presidency and hollow out the independence and power of other Mexican institutions. His other moves to bend the justice system to his will include a reform that lowered the salary of judges but did not improve the quality of prosecutors and his unwillingness to allow an independent selection of the attorney general, with López Obrador himself retaining the power of appointment. His latest move with the two-year extension of Zaldívar’s term is especially worrisome. Zaldívar is also the president of the powerful Federal Judiciary Council. The council appoints and dismisses judges, sets career advancement rules and disciplines judges. Zaldívar will be setting the council’s and, thus, the whole judiciary’s, agenda and priorities for two years. This allows López Obrador to influence how courts will rule in cases regarding the executive branch, what cases they take up and the legality of new policies. These moves are taking place when the effectiveness of the judiciary in Mexico remains limited and deeply concerning. The attorney general’s office has proven weak, unwilling to take up key cases such as against the suspects in the brazen attack on Mexico City’s security minister, Omar García Harfuch—an event that symbolized the impunity with which Mexican criminal groups operate. Mexico’s justice system showed itself equally meek and disappointing in inadequately investigating the alleged complicity of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and dismissing the case, potentially the most significant case of corruption and criminal collusion charges against a high-ranking Mexican official in two decades. A decade and a half after Mexico initiated its justice system reforms, 95 percent of federal cases still go unpunished. President López Obrador has scored some points, but the already precariously weak rule of law in Mexico, and thus the Mexican people, will suffer.