US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST
US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST

Washington — When a US appeals court declared that Florida could make it harder for convicted felons to vote — a ruling decried by civil rights activists — the impact of President Donald Trump’s conservative judicial appointments was plain to see.

The Atlanta-based 11th US circuit court of appeals was divided six to four in the September ruling, with five Trump appointees in the majority. It reversed a decision by a federal judge who found that the Republican-governed state’s effort to require felons, after their sentences are completed, to pay fines, restitution and legal fees before they could cast ballots violated their voting rights under the US constitution.

The dissenting 11th circuit judges were all Democrat appointees.

The outcome illustrated that Trump’s success in moving the US judiciary to the right was not limited to the Republican president’s three supreme court appointments — Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch — who pushed the top US judicial body’s conservative majority to six to three.

Nowhere is that more clearly on display than on the 13 influential federal courts of appeals, one rung below the supreme court. Trump, due to leave office next Wednesday, has appointed 54 judges to these courts in his four years as president, just one fewer than his Democrat predecessor Barack Obama did in eight years. Trump’s total amounts to almost a third of the 179 federal appellate judges.

Trump also appointed 174 federal district court judges, a step below the appeals courts. Only Democrat president Jimmy Carter, who served from 1977 to 1981, appointed more judges overall during a single four-year term, according to Russell Wheeler, a Brookings Institution scholar who tracks judicial nominations.

Earlier in his presidency, Trump often touted judicial appointments as one of his greatest achievements in office. But after losing the November 3 presidential election, he turned on judges, including supreme court justices, who repeatedly rejected his efforts to overturn the result as he pushed false claims of widespread voting fraud and irregularities.

“He misses the fundamentals, much less the subtleties, of the independent judiciary,” Wheeler said. “Those concepts are just foreign to him.”

When Trump took office in January 2017, the 11th circuit had an eight to three majority of Democrat-appointed judges. Due to the speed of Trump’s nominations and the quick work the Republican-led Senate under majority leader Mitch McConnell made of confirming them, it now has a seven to five majority of Republican appointees.

The number of Republican and Democrat appointees is typically an indicator of an appeals court’s conservative-liberal balance.

Trump’s nominees have generally been relatively young, meaning they could serve in their lifetime appointments potentially for decades. Trump appointed eight non-white judges and 11 women to these appeals courts, including Barrett, who he subsequently elevated to the supreme court.

Though supreme court rulings have the greatest impact on the law, it hears fewer than 100 cases a year, typically leaving the final word to the 13 appeals courts. Trump’s judicial appointees are already having an influence not just on voting rights but on other contentious issues, including guns, abortion and LGBT+ rights.

‘Tipped the balance’

“Having such a very high number of ideologically driven young courts of appeal judges around the country not only tipped the balance on a number of these circuits but has also tipped it in a way that could last for a long time,” said Russ Feingold, a former Democrat senator and president of the American Constitution Society, a liberal legal group.

When Trump took office, Democrat-appointed judges held majorities on nine of the 13 appeals courts. Under Trump, the 11th circuit and two other regional appeals courts — the New York-based second circuit and the Philadelphia-based third circuit — have “flipped” to have a majority of Republican appointees.

Even on courts that have not flipped, Republican-appointed judges have made inroads. At the start of Trump’s presidency, the liberal San Francisco-based ninth circuit had an 18 to four majority of Democrat appointees. Now it is just 16-13.

Trump-appointed judges have made their mark on the ninth circuit, including when judge Kenneth Lee authored a ruling last August striking down a California gun regulation that banned large-capacity magazines.

On abortion, four Trump-appointed judges were in the majority in 2019 when the New Orleans-based fifth circuit declined to reconsider a ruling that upheld a Republican-backed Louisiana law that placed restrictions on doctors who perform abortions. The supreme court in a five to four ruling last June struck down the law.

“President Trump’s biggest and most consequential accomplishment is his transformation of the federal judiciary, including the first true conservative majority on the supreme court in nearly a century and the appointment of a near-record number of circuit judges to the critically important federal courts of appeals,” said Mike Davis, who leads the conservative Article III Project that pushed for confirmation of Trump’s court nominees.

The White House did not respond to a request seeking comment.

McConnell played a crucial role in clearing the way for Trump’s appointments by impeding Senate confirmation of Obama’s picks — including refusing to consider Merrick Garland’s nomination to the supreme court in 2016 — while subsequently speeding approval of Trump's nominees.

In some ways, Wheeler said, “it’s McConnell’s legacy: he gave Trump the vacancies to fill”.

Reuters

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