Obama Makes His Mark on Federal Appeals Courts

The make-up of the 13 US federal appeals courts experienced a marked change under the Obama Administration. Once dominated by a majority of Republican-appointed judges, the US Courts of Appeals now have a majority of Democratic appointees.

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President Obama’s 49 judicial appointments have led to a significant change in the composition of the federal appeals courts. After the presidency of George W. Bush, 10 of the 13 US Courts of Appeal had a majority of Republican judicial appointees, two were evenly split between Republican and Democratic appointees, and only one had a majority of Democratic appointees. Research conducted by the Alliance for Justice now shows that, as of May 23, nine of the 13 US Courts of Appeal have a majority of Democratic judicial appointees, and four have a majority of Republican appointees.

The 13 US Courts of Appeals hear appeals from the federal district courts as well as appeals of federal administrative agency decisions. These federal appeals courts decide about 60,000 cases each year, ranging from discrimination and civil rights claims, criminal cases, environmental challenges, and others. These decisions are usually the final judgment in a case, as the US Supreme Court hears less than 100 cases per year, making the US Courts of Appeal a critical component of the US judicial system. In addition, federal judges serve on the bench for life unless they resign or are removed through impeachment, so the selection of federal judges can impact the composition of the courts for decades.

Currently, there are 10 vacancies on the US Courts of Appeals. One is awaiting a Senate confirmation vote, and three nominees are pending consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which must approve each nomination before the full Senate votes to confirm a nominee. The Senate voted in November to change its procedural rules to require a simple majority – rather than 60 votes – to end debate on presidential nominees to the executive branch and the federal bench, with the exception of nominees to the US Supreme Court. The rule change prevents one party from blocking these nominations from coming to a full vote on the Senate floor.

Media Resources: The Washington Post 5/29/14; Feminist Majority Press Release 11/21/13; Alliance for Justice; USCourts.gov

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