Now, this hearing’s subtitle implies that something called “court capture” is a threat to judicial independence and the rule of law. Yet I’m not sure that the courts have been captured, or even what such a capture would look like. Is it simply that President Trump has gotten many judicial nominees confirmed? Although this administration has had particular success with circuit judges—53 confirmed, with no remaining vacancies—its just over 200 confirmed Article III judges represent only about a quarter of all such judges, and less than a quarter of the authorized 870 Article III judgeships.1
By comparison, President Carter had 262 judges confirmed—59 of them to the circuit courts—President Reagan had 383, President George H.W. Bush had 193, President Clinton had 378, President George W. Bush had 327, and President Obama had 329. If President Trump loses his bid for reelection, his total will be not much higher than the first President Bush’s and significantly lower than that of President Carter (for whom Congress created many new judgeships to fill). And if President Trump is reelected, even assuming the Republicans keep the Senate, it’s unlikely that his two‐term total would be significantly higher than our last two presidents. For one thing, there are currently fewer than 70 vacancies—mostly for district judges in states where Democratic senators have refused to negotiate any sort of deals, preferring to leave their states shorthanded rather than to allow Trump to get any say in their judges.2
In other words, if the judiciary has been “captured,” it’s the sort of capture we see under every president—and probably overstated given the district court nominees in states like New York, where the Democratic senators have indeed made deals.
Maybe the nominees themselves have been captured by a particular interest? This can happen with elected state judges, of course, and historically the politics of judicial nominations have indeed been swayed by interests ranging from plantation slavery to the railroads, manufacturing concerns to New Deal allegiances. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s own chosen federal judge, John McConnell of the District of Rhode Island, was a well‐known personal‐injury trial lawyer who gave generously to left‐wing causes.3
But there’s no indication that President Trump’s judicial nominees are beholden to the entertainment or hotel‐development industries in which Donald Trump plied his trade before coming down that golden escalator to launch his presidential campaign. To his credit, President Trump has let the White House Counsel’s Office run the judicial‐nominations show. Senators will occasionally insist on their own local favorites, but the ratio of intellectually rigorous and independent nominees to establishmentarians is exceedingly high. The result has been Trump’s biggest success, with judges of the same kind and caliber as those whom conservative‐constitutionalist Ted Cruz would have picked. This administration has surpassed even George W. Bush in picking committed and youthful originalists, particularly in the circuit courts. Former White House Counsel Don McGahn likes to say that, rather than “outsourcing” judicial selection to the Federalist Society or anyone else, he had “insourced” the operation, meaning that his team, which was far leaner than in previous administrations, all understood the need for solid judges with a record of accomplishment and demonstrated commitment to originalism and textualism.
That’s why it’s no surprise that so many of Trump’s nominees are already superstars, and why Democrats have tried to smear them in various ways. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D‐Calif.) said about Seventh Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the odds‐on favorite to be elevated if Justice Ginsburg’s seat becomes vacant, that “the dogma lives loudly within you“4—which sounds like a rejected Star Wars line. Fifth Circuit Judge Don Willett was assailed for humorous tweets. D.C. Circuit Judge Neomi Rao and Second Circuit Judge Steven Menashi were attacked for their (standard conservative‐libertarian) collegiate writings. California Senators Feinstein and Kamala Harris tried especially hard to block Patrick Bumatay, who became the first openly gay Ninth Circuit judge and first circuit judge of Filipino descent. The American Bar Association too has been a source of renewed controversy, rating three circuit nominees “not qualified,” seemingly based on ideological disagreements. (More on the ABA later.)
Indeed, Democratic senators have used every trick in their power to slow this high‐quality judicial‐confirmation train. They no longer have the biggest brake, the filibuster—which former Majority Leader Harry Reid eliminated for the lower courts in 2013, after having employed the first‐ever partisan filibusters of circuit nominees a decade earlier—so they’ve forced more cloture votes than all previous presidencies combined. Nearly 80 percent of Trump’s judicial nominees have faced cloture votes, including many who are confirmed with upwards of 90 votes. In comparison, about three percent of Obama’s nominees faced cloture votes and fewer than two percent in the previous five presidencies. Until the Senate voted to cut back on floor time, Democrats also demanded the full 30 hours of floor time per nominee the rules allowed, even on judges who ultimately got approved by voice vote. Democrats are also refusing to return “blue slips,” the home‐state senators’ prerogative to have a say in whether to let a nominee be considered. Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R‐Iowa) thus made them non‐dispositive for circuit nominees, assuming that the White House engaged in good‐faith consultation—a policy Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has continued as chairman.
To put it another way, Trump’s just over 200 Article III judicial appointees have received more than 4,500 no votes, while Obama’s 329 got 2,039.5 Trump’s judges have received nearly half of all no votes in U.S. history, an average of about 22 per judge (and about 36 per circuit judge)—as compared to just over six per judge under Obama, two under George W. Bush, 1.3 under Clinton, and the rest fewer than one. In 2019 alone, when the Senate confirmed 102 judges, those judges received 88 percent more no votes than all 2,680 judges confirmed in the 20th century. The number confirmed in 2019 is eclipsed only by the 135 in 1979, when Congress had just created 150 new judgeships and President Carter’s Democrats had a 59–41 Senate majority. Judiciary Committee Chairman Ted Kennedy (D‐Mass.) even considered seven circuit nominees in one hearing and the Senate confirmed more than 20 judges on a single day at least twice, confirming more than 97 percent of judges on voice vote and taking no cloture votes.
One final statistic: The average Democrat has voted against nearly half of all Trump judicial nominees, which the average Republican voted against fewer than ten percent of Obama nominees. It’s a shame that quality nominees are confirmed on party‐line votes; only 16 of 53 circuit judges confirmed under Trump have gotten more than 60 votes. But we’ve gotten here because we’re at the culmination of a long trend whereby different legal theories map onto ideologically sorted parties.
None of this is a sign of “capture.” And yet we have the now‐withdrawn Advisory Opinion 117, the still‐pending Judicial Ads Act, and other calls for so‐called “reform.” Is “capture” simply a term to describe the normal judicial selection and confirmation process when the person making the accusation doesn’t like the president making the nominations? Because political considerations have always been a part of that process.