Trump’s impact on courts likely to last long beyond his term

On this, even President Donald Trump’s most fevered critics agree: He has left a deep imprint on the federal courts that will outlast his one term in office for decades to come.

He used the promise of conservative judicial appointments to win over Republican skeptics as a candidate. Then as president, he relied on outside conservative legal organizations and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to employ an assembly line-like precision to install more than 230 judges on the federal bench, including the three newest justices of the Supreme Court. Trump never tired of boasting about it.

Indeed, undeterred by Democratic criticism, the Senate was still confirming judges more than a month after Trump lost his reelection bid to Joe Biden.

“Trump has basically done more than any president has done in a single term since (President Jimmy) Carter to put his stamp on the judiciary,” said Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland. Congress created about 150 new judgeships during Carter’s presidency, he said.

The impact will be enduring. Among the Trump-appointed judges, who hold lifetime positions, several are still in their 30s. The three Supreme Court picks could still be on the court at the 21st century’s midpoint, 30 years from now.

Beyond the Supreme Court, 30% of the judges on the nation’s court of appeals, where all but a handful of cases reach their end, were appointed by Trump.

But numbers don’t tell the entire story. The real measure of what Trump has been able to do will be revealed in countless court decisions in the years to come on abortion, guns, religious rights and a host of other culture wars issues.

When it came to the president’s own legal challenges of the election results, however, judges who have him to thank for their position rebuffed his claims. But in many other important ways, his success with judicial appointments already is paying dividends for conservatives.

When the Supreme Court blocked New York from enforcing certain limits on attendance at churches and synagogues in areas designated as hard hit by COVID-19, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the newest member of the court, cast the decisive fifth vote. Previously, the court had allowed restrictions on religious services over the dissent of four justices, including the other two Trump nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Five Trump appointees were in the majority of the 6-4 decision by the full 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September that made it harder for felons in Florida to regain the right to vote. The Atlanta-based court had a majority of Democratic-appointed judges when Trump took office.

Last month, Judges Britt Grant and Barbara Lagoa, both named by Trump, formed the majority on a three-judge 11th circuit panel that struck down local Florida bans on therapy that seeks to change the sexual orientation of LGBTQ minors. Other appeals courts around the country have upheld the conversion therapy bans.

In one early look at Trump’s appointees to federal trial courts, political science professors Kenneth Manning, Robert Carp and Lisa Holmes compared their decisions with more than 117,000 opinions published dating to 1932.

“Trump has appointed judges who exhibit a distinct decision-making pattern that is, on the whole, significantly more conservative than previous presidents,” the political scientists concluded in a working paper in October.

The one constant of the past four years — through impeachment, the coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s election loss — has been his nomination of and Senate confirmation of judges.

The president has had several partners in the judicial effort, but none more important than McConnell, who takes particular pride in reshaping the Supreme Court.

“I think it’s far and away the most consequential thing I’ve ever been involved in,’’ the 78-year-old McConnell said in an interview. “And it’s the most long-lasting accomplishment of the current administration, by far.’’


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