Bold Justice: Six-month checkup on federal judicial activity during Biden’s first year

Bold Justice

Welcome to the July 19 edition of Bold Justice, Ballotpedia’s newsletter about the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) and other judicial happenings around the U.S.

In a special edition of Bold Justice, we’ll be taking the temperature of federal judicial activity during the first year of the Biden administration with a six-month checkup on vacancies, nominations, and confirmations. 

Stay up to date on the latest news by following Ballotpedia on Twitter or subscribing to the Daily Brew.

Before we get to our checkup, let’s take a quick look at the latest U.S. Supreme Court activity. 

Arguments scheduled

SCOTUS is in its summer recess, so they are not issuing opinions. But that doesn’t mean they’re totally on vacation. On July 13, the court released the calendar for its October sitting. It will hear nine hours of oral argument in nine cases between October 4 and October 13. 

Click the links below to learn more about the cases:

October 4, 2021

October 5, 2021

October 6, 2021

October 12, 2021

October 13, 2021

To date, 20 cases granted review during the term have not yet been scheduled for argument.

Grants

SCOTUS has not accepted any new cases to its merits docket since our July 12 issue. To date, the court has agreed to hear 31 cases for the 2021-2022 term. Two cases were dismissed after they were accepted.

True or false: All justices must be present for the court to decide a case.

  1. True
  2. False

Choose an answer to find out!

Vacancies

President Joe Biden (D) inherited 46 Article III lifetime federal judicial vacancies requiring a presidential nomination when he was inaugurated on January 20, 2021. There were two vacancies in the U.S. courts of appeal, 43 vacancies in the U.S. district courts, and one vacancy in the U.S. Court of International Trade

The 46 vacancies represented roughly one-twentieth of all life-term judicial positions (5.29%). This was the lowest number of federal judicial vacancies at the beginning of a presidency since 1989, when George H.W. Bush inherited 37 vacancies.

Since 1981, every president has had more judicial vacancies six months into his administration than at the start of his administration.

The data above show that Biden has the third-lowest number of vacancies and the third-lowest vacancy percentage of any sitting president six months into his first term since the Reagan administration.

The number of judicial vacancies created during Biden’s first six months in office is the second-highest in our data (28), and is equal to the number of vacancies created during President George W. Bush’s first six months (28). President Barack Obama (29) had the highest number of judicial vacancies during his first six months as president.

As of July 19, there were 78 Article III vacancies in the federal judiciary out of 870 total Article III judgeships. Including non-Article III judges from the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and the United States territorial courts, there are 83 vacancies out of 890 active federal judicial positions.

Nominations

Since taking office, President Biden has nominated 30 individuals to federal judgeships. 

The data below compares Biden to his immediate predecessors in the number of Article III judicial nominations submitted to the U.S. Senate during his first six months in office. 

Biden has submitted nominations to fill more than 38% of federal judicial vacancies during his first six months in office. This represents the highest percentage since George W. Bush, and the most since 1981. President Bill Clinton (D) had the lowest percentage among the presidents included here, having submitted no Article III nominations during his first six months in office. 

For a list of individuals President Biden has nominated to Article III judgeships, click here.

Blue slips and the nomination process

A blue slip is a piece of paper a home-state senator returns to the Senate Judiciary Committee chair to express support for a federal judicial nominee. 

In February 2021, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), became chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee for the 117th Congress. Durbin said in an interview with The New York Times that he would adhere to the precedent of his predecessors’–Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) who served as the committee chair in the 116th Congress and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) who served as chair during the 115th Congress–in following the blue slip tradition for district court nominees but not for circuit court nominees. Durbin said he might reconsider following the blue slip tradition with district court nominees.

For more information on blue slips and federal judicial nominations, click here.

Confirmations

Since taking office, seven of President Biden’s nominees have been confirmed, and six have received their judicial commission. 

The table below compares Biden’s confirmations at this point in his administration with those of his predecessors:

Since 1981, Biden has the highest number of judicial confirmations in the first six months of his presidency (7). Neither President Clinton nor President Obama had any nominations confirmed by this point in their presidencies. President Donald Trump (R) is the only president included here to have a Supreme Court, a circuit court, and a district court nominee confirmed in his first six months in office.

Do you love judicial nomination, confirmation, and vacancy information? We figured you might. Our monthly Federal Vacancy Count, published at the start of each month, monitors all the faces and places moving in, moving out, and moving on in the federal judiciary. Click here for our most current count.

Need a daily fix of judicial nomination, confirmation, and vacancy information? Click here for continuing updates on the status of all federal judicial nominees.

Or, keep an eye on our list for updates on federal judicial nominations.

Lucy, I’m home! Welcome back, gentle readers, to our journey through federal judicial history. Pull up a seat on the davenport and enjoy today’s edition of Bold Justice, highlighting President Harry Truman’s (R) federal judicial nominees from 1945 to 1953.


During his time in office, 140 of President Truman’s judicial nominees were confirmed. Two nominations were withdrawn, the U.S. Senate rejected two nominations, and the Senate did not vote on 38 nominees. Among the most notable appointees were four Supreme Court Justices:

President Truman’s first Article III appointee was confirmed on May 15, 1945—Judge Donnell Gilliam to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. By the end of his first year in office, 16 of Truman’s nominees had been confirmed–one to the U.S. Supreme Court, five to U.S. circuit courts, nine to U.S. district courts, and one to the U.S. Customs Court. Truman averaged 18 judicial appointments per year. For comparison, President Jimmy Carter (D) had the highest average from 1901 to 2021 with 65.5 appointments per year.

We’ll be back on August 9 with a new edition of Bold Justice. Until then, gaveling out! 

Contributions

Kate Carsella compiled and edited this newsletter, with contributions from Brittony Maag, Jace Lington, and Sara Reynolds.




About the author

Kate Carsella

Kate Carsella is a staff writer at Ballotpedia. Contact us at editor@ballotpedia.org.