Much of the political coverage over the last few weeks has been over the last minute budget deal that ended up funding the government. As this was happening, a far more politically consequential showdown was being conducted in the US Senate. Quietly, and with little fanfare, President Obama has cemented his legacy through a series of judicial appointments. These appointments are to District Courts, Circuit Courts, and Court of Appeals. To date, Obama has appointed 305 nominees to judiciary, more than any President in history. With slightly more than two years in office, Obama already ranks fourth for judicial appointments, and is outpacing all other Presidents in terms of number of confirmed appointees.
The all time high for number of judicial appointments goes to President Ronald Reagan, who appointed 376 to district courts, President Bill Clinton appointed 373, while President George W. Bush appointed 325. All three of these Presidents ended the last two years of their terms with the opposition party controlling Congress, a situation President Obama will face in the remaining years of his Presidency.
Obama was able to appoint 88 new members to the judiciary in 2014, the largest number since 1994. The Senate was able to confirm this record breaking new number of appointees due to a rule change that occurred in 2013. Previously, the number of votes needed to confirm appointees in the Senate was 60, but Democrats invoked what was called the “nuclear option”, changing Senate rules to need only 51 votes.
The breakthrough came when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) didn’t allow the Senate to recess as a form of retaliation against President Obama’s immigration executive order. Democrats used this time to push through votes on over thirty pending nominees. Many Republican Senators were enraged, including Tennessee’s Bob Corker. In a speech on the Senate floor, Corker directly attacked Cruz’s move as a publicity stunt, stating, “ You want the American people and the outside groups that you’ve been in contact with to be able to watch us tomorrow. The reason we’re waiting is that ya’ll have sent out releases and emails, and you want everyone to be able to watch. And it just doesn’t seem to me that’s in our nation’s interest.”
Judicial appointments are perhaps the most direct way a President leaves their legacy. Most appointments to judicial positions are jobs that are lifetime appointments. Many serve decades. On the current bench, there are several judges appointed by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter nearly 40 years ago. Through the holidays, Obama cemented his place in history through a series of valuable appointments, and the irony is he largely has Ted Cruz to thank.