The Senate Just Cemented Obama's Judicial Legacy

12/17/2014 12:28 am ET | Updated Dec 17, 2014

WASHINGTON -- If there's one thing from 2014 that will define President Barack Obama's legacy after he's left the White House, it's the number of lifetime judges he put on the federal bench.

In its final act of the year, the Senate blew through a dozen U.S. district court nominees on Tuesday night. That puts Obama at a whopping 89 district court and circuit court confirmations for the year, and means he'll wrap up his sixth year in office with a grand total of 305 district court and circuit court confirmations -- a tally that puts him well beyond where his predecessors were by this point in their presidencies.

President George W. Bush confirmed just 32 district court and circuit court judges during his sixth year in office, according to data provided by Alliance for Justice, a progressive advocacy group focused on the federal judiciary. President Bill Clinton confirmed 65 judges in his sixth year. In total, Bush confirmed 256 district and circuit court nominees after six years in office, Clinton confirmed 302, and President Ronald Reagan confirmed 295. Those numbers include a handful of Court of International Trade confirmations.

Senate filibuster reform played a major role in Obama's spike in judicial confirmations this year. Democrats changed the rules last year to require a simple majority, or 51 votes, instead of 60 votes to advance most judicial nominees. They made the change in response to Republicans abusing the filibuster rule to block several of Obama's nominees -- even noncontroversial picks.

The result is that Democrats have had a much easier time getting approval for the president's picks. The numbers speak for themselves. Prior to filibuster reform, Obama got 45 judges confirmed in 2013 and 49 judges confirmed in 2012. He's nearly doubled those numbers in the last year.

"These confirmations mean that, for Americans across the country, justice will no longer be delayed," said Michelle Schwartz of Alliance For Justice. "They also mean that taxpayer money will be saved by avoiding needlessly duplicative paperwork and hearings if these nominees had to be re-nominated next year. We commend Senator Reid for his dedication to confirming these judges before the end of the year."

It's unclear how Obama's future judicial nominees will fare in his final two years in office, when Republicans will control the Senate.

It may be that, in the end, his biggest effect on the judiciary isn't sheer numbers as much as the diversity of his judges. Forty-two percent of Obama's confirmed judges are women, 19 percent are black and 11 percent are Hispanic, according to data provided by the White House. Eleven of his confirmed judges are openly gay or lesbian.

Even the 12 nominees confirmed Tuesday night will make a mark: Robert Pitman will be the first openly gay judge to serve in the Fifth Circuit, which includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Loretta Biggs will be the first black woman to serve as a district judge in North Carolina.

Democrats spent the final days of the lame duck thanking Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for inadvertently helping to expedite votes on Obama's nominees. On Friday, Cruz derailed a plan by party leaders to leave for the weekend and come back Monday in an effort to force a show vote on Obama's immigration executive action. The stunt kept senators in session all day Saturday, with hours to kill. So, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) used the time to tee up votes for the 12 district court nominees still on the calendar.

Democratic leadership aides said they had hoped to confirm most of those nominees before the end of the lame duck session, but knew they were up against time constraints and lawmakers getting antsy about going home for the holidays. Cruz's move ensured that all 12 nominees were ready for a vote days before they would have been otherwise.

"Votes would have dragged into next weekend or later and we ... likely would've been forced to cut loose more people than we wanted to," said Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson. "End-of-Congress jet fumes are the most powerful variety and they would have robbed us of some critical nominees. Now, not so, thanks entirely to Senator Cruz."

Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier denied that the senator's move had any effect on Obama's nominees getting through.

"Everyone knows Harry Reid planned to jam forward as many nominees as he could after the omnibus passed," said Frazier. "Unfortunately, there are many on both sides of the aisle who want to distract from the more important debate over the President's unilateral action to grant amnesty."

But it's hard not to see how Cruz helped move the process along. All but one of the 12 judicial nominees confirmed Tuesday night were passed on voice votes, having been teed up over the weekend. And some Republican senators openly grumbled that Cruz had handed Democrats an early Christmas present.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said he didn't know if Cruz's "shenanigans" created additional time for Obama's nominees to get confirmed. He nevertheless got in a parting shot about the Texas senator's understanding of Senate rules.

"If that's the case, it may be an indication that Senator Cruz doesn't know much more about Senate floor procedure than I do," Earnest said during his Tuesday briefing. "But we certainly are pleased with the outcome."

Harry Reid

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