December 13, 2019

Trump Judges Comprise 1/5 of the Federal Bench

Tom Wright Assistant Director of Strategic Engagement


View our interactive map of the circuit and district courts.

The Senate recently confirmed the 174th new lifetime federal judge during the Trump administration, representing one-fifth of all such judges at the federal level. Lawrence VanDyke, who was confirmed to the Ninth Circuit this week, was that very confirmation. VanDyke’s confirmation illustrates two larger trends in judicial nominations under this administration: an increase in ABA “not qualified” ratings and failure to value diversity on the federal bench.

12/20/19 update: View our federal judiciary year in review.

More of Trump's judicial nominees rated "not qualified" than Obama or Bush's nominees.

In its astonishing letter, the ABA wrote that based on the “assessments of interviewees that Mr. VanDyke is arrogant, lazy, an ideologue, and lacking in knowledge of the day-to-day practice including procedural rules.” Furthermore, the ABA expressed concerns that VanDyke wouldn’t be able to treat members of the LGBTQ community fairly in his courtroom. Based on these facts the ABA rated VanDyke as “not qualified.”

VanDyke is not alone in his “not qualified” rating from the ABA. Another recently confirmed judge, Sarah Pitlyk (E.D. Mo.), received a unanimous “not qualified” rating from the ABA. In its letter, the ABA wrote that Pitlyk “does not have the requisite trial or litigation experience or its equivalent.” The ABA explained that Pitlyk has never examined a witness, tried a case, or taken a deposition. VanDyke and Pitlyk are just a few of this administration’s ABA rated “not qualified” nominees.

The Trump administration has nominated nine people who received a “not qualified” rating in just three years. During his entire administration, President Obama nominated zero people who received a “not qualified” rating from the ABA and President George W. Bush nominated eight people who received that rating. In this respect, President Trump is vastly outpacing his predecessors.

View our interactive map showing the circuit and district courts.

Another common trait among President Trump’s judicial nominees is the lack of diversity. Nearly two-thirds of the confirmed lifetime judges during this administration have been white men. Approximately 86% of all the confirmed judges have been white. This lack of diversity can be seen at all levels of President Trump’s judicial nominations but is best exemplified by his circuit court nominees. To date, President Trump has only nominated one Latinx candidate to the circuit courts and has yet to nominate a single Black candidate to the circuit courts. In just three short years, the federal judiciary has gotten younger, whiter, and more male, making it less representative of the people it serves.

Diversity on the bench is essential for a fair judiciary.

Every day, federal courts decide cases critical to our rights — from the environment to voting to immigration. Those who are appointed to serve on the bench must be qualified, fair, and impartial. They must also be diverse. It is critical for judges to have different perspectives that come with different identities and backgrounds. A more diverse bench is more likely to understand the needs of traditionally oppressed or underserved populations.

In light of this, it is imperative that the moderators at this week’s Democratic presidential debate ask the nominees to explain their plans for the courts. Through five debates very little time has been spent discussing the courts, while hours have now been spent on issues like healthcare. This is not to say that healthcare is unimportant but considering the new federal judiciary voters should hear how the candidates plan to deal with the courts. Whether it is a public option or Medicare for All, if enacted these proposals likely face future legal challenges. The courts can no longer be an afterthought at these debates. The time to ask about them is now.

Visit ACS's Judicial Nominations page to learn more about the circuit and district courts, judicial vacancies, and Trump's nominees.