On guns, abortion and voting rights, Trump leaves lasting mark on U.S.
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[January 15, 2021]
By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When a U.S. 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
The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was divided 6-4 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 U.S.
The dissenting 11th Circuit judges were all Democratic appointees.
The outcome illustrated that Trump's success in moving the U.S.
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 U.S. judicial body's conservative
majority to 6-3.
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 Democratic
predecessor Barack Obama did in eight years. Trump's total amounts to
almost a third of the 179 federal appellate judges.
(See graphic on Trump's appeals court appointments: https://tmsnrt.rs/3oJ0QRS)
Trump also appointed 174 federal district court judges, a step below the
appeals courts. Only Democratic 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 Nov. 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
When Trump took office in January 2017, the 11th Circuit had an 8-3
majority of Democratic-appointed judges. Due to the speed of Trump's
nominations and the quick work that the Republican-led Senate under
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made of confirming them, it now has a
7-5 majority of Republican appointees.
The number of Republican and Democratic 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
Although 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 already are having an
influence not just on voting rights but on other contentious issues
including guns, abortion and LGBT rights.
[to top of second column]
President Donald Trump addresses a campaign rally in Dalton,
Georgia, U.S., on the eve of the run-off election to decide both of
Georgia's Senate seats January 4, 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File
'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 Democratic U.S.
senator and president of the American Constitution Society, a
liberal legal group.
When Trump took office, Democratic-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 2nd Circuit
and the Philadelphia based 3rd 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 9th Circuit had an 18-4 majority of Democratic
appointees. Now it is just 16-13.
Trump-appointed judges have made their mark on the 9th Circuit,
including when Judge Kenneth Lee authored a ruling last August
striking down a California gun regulation that banned large-capacity
On abortion, four Trump-appointed judges were in the majority in
2019 when the New Orleans-based 5th 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 5-4 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
In some ways, Wheeler said, "it's McConnell's legacy: He gave Trump
the vacancies to fill."
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Caitlin
Tremblay; Editing by Will Dunham)
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