For many Americans, Donald Trump will be remembered as the first US president to be twice impeached, to have supported, or even incited, an insurrection against democracy, and for allowing thousands to die due to his abject failure to lead the nation in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. But for many other Americans, his true legacy will be his enduring impact on the third branch – the federal judiciary.
The expansion of executive power, and the diminishment of legislative power due to partisan gridlock, is a well-known story. Governing by executive order has become the new normal. But it is the stealthy and steady rise of the power of the judicial branch that has caught many Americans off-guard.
Federal judges have life tenure. Once they are appointed they remain in office until they retire or die. The president appoints every federal judge and these appointments have very long-term consequences. A look at Trump’s record of appointments reveals a relentless commitment to cementing his peculiar and idiosyncratic ideology. In short, he and his sidekick, former majority leader Mitch McConnell, did all they could to entrench an actively conservative judiciary.
The numbers tell a clear story. There are a total of 816 active federal judges comprising the supreme court, the 13 appellate courts, and 91 district courts. In just one term Trump was able to appoint 28% of those judges due to past and continuing vacancies. Most importantly, he appointed 33% of America’s nine supreme court justices and 30% of the appellate judges. The vast majority of his appointments were white males – not one of his 54 appellate judges is Black. But what really stands out is the age of his appointees. The average age of his appellate judges was 47 (five years younger than those selected by President Obama). Six of those were in their 30s, and 20 were under 45. By contrast, of the 55 appellate judges picked by Obama – in eight years, not four – none were in their 30s and only six were younger than 45.
Trump’s judicial appointments will shape American jurisprudence for decades to come. The Federal Judicial Center has found that this age disparity means that Trump judges will serve 270 more years than Obama’s judges, and they will decide thousands more cases. Moreover, the average tenure for a supreme court justice has increased from 15 years in the early 1970s to 27 years in more recent years, due in large part to the younger age of the Justices at the date of appointment.
The Trump legacy of judicial appointments is most apparent in the recent behavior of the supreme court. A new term has been coined – the shadow docket – which refers to the sudden uptick in emergency requests filed by the government. In the 16 years preceding the Trump presidency only eight such requests were filed, and, of those, only four were granted. By contrast, during Trump’s four-year term, 41 such applications were made, of which 24 were granted – a 70% success rate that supported Trump’s policies. These cases are heard without full briefing, without oral argument, and often result in a single-sentence order as opposed to a full reasoned opinion.
One such decision overturned, by a 5-4 order, a Wisconsin trial court order allowing an extension for the receipt of absentee ballots. The last-minute supreme court decision issued the day before the election caused chaos and confusion. A second example of how the now safely pro-Trump court supported his policies involved his administration’s rule prohibiting migrants from seeking asylum in the US before seeking it in the countries through which they had travelled. The lower court suspended enforcement of this unprecedented rule, but the supreme court allowed the ban to take effect immediately even as the case proceeded through the lower courts. Another particularly disturbing example involved four death penalty cases where a lower court halted four executions because the use of pentobarbital to kill the prisoners would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. In a 5-4 ruling, issued after 2am, the stay was overturned and at least one of the executions carried out – the first federal prisoner to be executed in 17 years.
Most recently, in yet another emergency appeal, the supreme court by a 5-4 margin, refused to block the newly enacted Texas law banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, allowing that rule to be enforced for the foreseeable future. This emergency request was brought by abortion providers after the very conservative fifth circuit court of appeals, to which Trump had appointed six judges, stopped the trial court from holding a hearing as to whether the new law could take immediate effect. A month later a trial judge blocked the law from taking effect and the fifth circuit promptly reversed. The Department of Justice is now appealing that decision to the supreme court.
In each of these cases, the supreme court deprived the affected parties of a chance to be fully heard and often deprived the appellate courts of the chance to review the ruling of the trial courts. This unprecedented haste, and acquiescence to the importuning of the executive branch, gave the appearance that the supreme court was no longer an independent and co-equal branch of government but rather a partner of the Trump-led executive branch.
Many Americans now question the court’s integrity and are jumping on the bandwagon of seeking supreme court reform. Proposals for reform include imposing term limits on supreme court justices to ensure that no one justice or group of justices controls the outcome of cases for decades to come. It is noteworthy that the three justices Trump appointed were 48, 49 and 53 at the time they joined the court, guaranteeing decades of influence by those justices. A variation on this proposal would require mandatory retirement by all federal judges at the age of 70 or 75.
Another more controversial proposal is to expand the court. This proposal is, in part, a response to the widespread belief that two of President Obama’s appointments were stolen. The first was the vacancy caused by the death of Antonin Scalia. Obama’s nominee to fill that seat was stonewalled by Republicans for 10 months, purportedly due to the proximity to the upcoming presidential election, while the second was the record-breaking speedy confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett just days before a presidential election.
Other proposals include reform of the shadow docket by requiring briefing, argument, and a reasoned opinion on all emergency matters; imposing a code of conduct and ethics on supreme court justices similar to that binding lower court judges; requiring a 6-3 super-majority before finding a federal statute unconstitutional; and requiring that Congress consider any presidential nomination within a fixed period of time – perhaps 45 days after nomination.
The growing support for some or all of these reforms by many non-partisan organizations, academics, and Democratic politicians, is a response to the discontent created by Trump’s unprecedented manipulation of the appointment process for federal judges, designed to ensure that his politics and policies will control the lives of future generations. Trump’s brazen capture of the supreme court, engineered with the help of the Republican Senate majority, requires a bold response. If reform efforts fail, which is likely given the arcane Senate rules, Trump will have succeeded in entrenching his regressive, if not destructive, political agenda. This may be good for Trump’s legacy but it is surely bad for the country.