Judicial Vacancies


Our nation is disadvantaged when our federal judiciary does not have sufficient judges to hear cases and resolve disputes in a thorough and timely fashion. In districts struggling under excessive caseloads and too few judges, vacancies make it impossible for the remaining judges to keep up with the workload. This has real consequences for communities and businesses because short-handed courts have no choice but to delay civil trial dockets due to the Speedy Trial Act. In these jurisdictions, persistent vacancies increase the length of time that litigants and businesses wait for their day in court, create pressures that “robotize” justice, and increase case backlogs that will perpetuate delays for years to come. These pressures, if left unchecked, inevitably will alter the delivery and quality of justice and erode public confidence in our federal judicial system.  

To achieve a significant and lasting reduction in the vacancy rate, the Administration and the Senate must make the prompt filing of federal judicial vacancies an ongoing priority, and the political branches must refrain from delaying votes on nominees for reasons not associated with their qualifications and resolve to work cooperatively and across the political aisle to give each nominee an up or down vote within a reasonable time after the Senate Judiciary Committee reports the nominee.

While increasing the pace of confirmations is essential to reducing the vacancy rate, given the high rate of attrition, it nonetheless is only one part of the solution; lasting progress also requires a more timely nomination process. A constant flow of nominees in the pipeline keeps the process moving and creates additional incentive for the Senate to schedule prompt votes. The White House and Members of the Senate need to make a concerted effort to work together to shorten the time between vacancy and nomination, especially for those vacancies classified judicial emergencies. Because of the deference traditionally given to senators with regard to filling district court vacancies, senators should be prepared to identify potential nominees and to submit recommendations to the President as early as possible after a future district court vacancy in the state is announced. 

Status of Judicial Vacancies, Nominations, and Confirmations as of December 19, 2014 

Current Vacancies – 41
  7 – Courts of Appeals
31 – District Courts
  3 – Court of International Trade

Total Nominations – 152
26 – Courts of Appeals
123 – District Courts
  3 – Court of International Trade

Nominations Withdrawn – 3
  1 – Courts of Appeals 
  2 – District Courts

Nominations Returned at Adjournment – 14
  2 – Courts of Appeals
11 – District Court (2 for future vacancies)
  1 – Court of International Trade (only nominee pending on floor at adjournment)

Total Confirmations – 134
          23  – Courts of Appeals
         109 – District Courts
            2 – Court of International Trade

Judicial Emergencies – 16
           3 – Courts of Appeals
         13 – District Courts

Significant Events and Issues

Vacancies at Start of 113th Congress

On January 3, 2013, the day that the 112th Congress adjourned  sine die and the 113th Congress convened, there were 77 vacancies on Article III courts. President Obama immediately renominated the 33 nominees pending at adjournment, including two who had been successfully filibustered and 11 who were waiting for a final floor vote. 

1st Session Begins with Procedural Reforms and Modest Progress 

On January 24, 2013, Senate leaders agreed to a modest packet of reforms to Senate procedures and rules, including limiting the time for post-cloture debate on district court nominations to two hours for the duration of the 113th Congress. Senator Reid said he hoped this modest change would discourage senators from filibustering district court nominees, a record number of whom were filibustered during the 112th Congress. The two leaders also agreed that senators who wish to object or threaten a filibuster must actually come to the floor to do so, and that debate time post-cloture must be used for debate and not as a tactic to slow down business. 

This marked the second time during the Obama presidency that the Majority and Minority Leaders agreed to modest procedural changes: at the start of the 112th Congress, they agreed to restrict the use of secret holds, long considered a senatorial privilege, by requiring any senator who places a holds to disclose his or her identity within two days.

The first judicial nominees of the 113th Congress were confirmed in mid-February. William Kayatta, who had waited 10 months for a floor vote, was confirmed to a seat on the First Circuit, by a vote of 88-12; Robert Bacharach, whose nomination had been filibustered last Congress, was confirmed by a 93-0 vote to the Tenth Circuit; and Richard Tarranto, who had waited for a floor vote for a year, was confirmed to the Federal Circuit by a vote of 91-0.  

Skirmishes over the DC Circuit

At the start of the 113th Congress, President Obama renominated Caitlin Halligan and Sri Srinvasan to two of the four vacant seats on the D.C. Circuit. During the 112th Congress, Halligan’s nomination had been successfully filibustered, and Srinvasan’s nomination received no action for six months to accommodate Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans who wanted more information about his activities at the Department of Justice.  

The comity enjoyed during the first few months of the 113th Congress was not sufficient to overcome Republican opposition to Caitlin Halligan. For the second time in two years, her nomination was successfully fillibustered, this time on a cloture vote of 51-41. Halligan withdrew her nomination on March 25, 2013, a few weeks after the vote. Sri Srinivasan fared better. Even though Senator Reid had to force a floor vote by filing a cloture petition, Sri Srinivasan was confirmed to the DC Circuit by a vote of 97-0 on May 23, 2013. 

To discourage any further nominations to the D.C. Circuit by President Obama, Senator Grassley (R-IA) introduced S. 699, the Court Efficiency Act of 2013, which would reduce from 11 to 8 the number of authorized judgeships on the court and create two new judgeships in other circuits. It would take effect immediately upon enactment. Upon introduction, Senator Grassley stated, “It is no secret that the D.C. Circuit is the least-busy, least-worked appellate court in the nation.” His assessment of the needs of the court was based on his interpretation of statistics maintained by the Judicial Conference.  

Opponents of Grassley’s bill point out that the statistics he relies on do not take into account the complexity of the cases before the D.C. Circuit. As retired D.C. Circuit Court Judge Pat Wald stated in an op-ed in the Washington Post, “the D.C. Circuit has exclusive jurisdiction over many vital national security challenges and hears the bulk of appeals from the major regulatory agencies of the federal government,” including clean air and water regulations, nuclear plant safety, health care reform, insider trading and more. She also said it resolves more constitutional questions involving separation of powers and executive prerogatives than any other court of appeals, and is often the “breeding ground” for Supreme Court nominees and referred to as the second most important court in the nation.

Neither the Judicial Conference nor the D.C. Circuit has recommended this reduction in judgeships for the D.C. Circuit. In 2009, the Judicial Conference, which utilizes a multi-step process for developing comprehensive recommendations for terminating and authorizing judgeships, recommended elimination of the D.C. Circuit’s 12th judgeship. Congress readily concurred and passed legislation that offset the reduction on the D.C. Circuit by adding one authorized judgeship to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. No other reductions have been proposed.

On June 4, President Obama exercised his constitutional duty to make nominations to vacancies on the federal bench by submitting to the Senate the names of three nominees to the D.C. Circuit - Patricia Ann Millett, Cornelia T. L. Pillard, and Robert L. Wilkins. Republicans immediately and vociferously denounced the action, accusing the President of “court-packing” and suggesting that the President’s motive to fill the open seats was strictly political.

The Senate Judiciary Committee reported all three nominees to the Senate on party-line votes of 10-8. However, during the fall, floor consideration of the nomination of Patricia Ann Millett was blocked by a cloture vote of 55-38-3; the nomination of T. L. Pillard by a cloture vote of 56-41; and the nomination of Robert Wilkins by a cloture vote of 55-43.

Majority Leader Invokes the “Nuclear Option” to Change the Filibuster Rule

On November 21, 2013, Majority Leader Reid invoked the “nuclear option” to change the Senate rules regarding filibusters by resorting to a series of procedural moves that enabled a change in the standing Senate rules by simple majority vote rather than the normally required supermajority of 67 votes.

Members of both parties had threatened to invoke the nuclear option for almost a decade but always worked out some accord to avert it at the last minute. For example, in 2005, then-Majority Leader Bill Frist threatened to invoke it after Democrats filibustered ten of President Bush’s appellate court nominees, including Miguel Estrada. The Gang of 14— seven senators from each party — reached an accord over the nominees and issued a memorandum of understanding to limit filibusters to extraordinary circumstances. In the intervening years, both parties have violated the agreement in one way or another, and increasing discord over the nomination and confirmation process culminated in Majority Leader Reid pulling the trigger. He claimed it was necessary because of widespread Republican abuse of the filibuster, an assertion he defends by citing a June 2013 Congressional Research Service report that concluded that 82 of the 168 filibusters of nominations in the history of the United States had been waged by Republicans under President Obama. In addition, the report stated that 20 of the 23 filibusters of district court nominees to occur in the history of our country were launched against Obama’s district court nominees.

The new rule change guts the power of the filibuster by lowering the threshold for cloture on all executive branch and judicial nominees except for Supreme Court nominees from 60 votes to a simple majority. The change applies to all future congresses and presidents, barring a future rule change by the Senate.

Shortly after the rule change, the Senate reconsidered the nominations of Millet, Pillard, and Wilkins, the three D.C. Circuit nominees who had been filibustered earlier in the session. In a symbolic gesture, all three were filibustered again, but the new rule guaranteed successful cloture votes, and all three went on to be confirmed - Millet by a vote of 56-38; Pillard by a vote of 51-44; and Wilkins by a vote of 55-43.

The Senate rule change in no way assures the prompt filling of judicial vacancies; there still are a number of ways for senators to delay the nomination and confirmation process, including not forwarding names of candidates for nomination to district court vacancies; refusing or delaying the return of blue slips (e.g., consider the delay by the two Republican senators in returning blue slips for five Arizona nominees or the blocking of blue slips for sixth Circuit nominees by two Democratic senators in 2002); blocking executive committee action by preventing a quorum from being present; placing a series of holds on a nomine; and, of course, using up precious Senate time by filibustering nominees, thereby setting in motion cloture procedures that permit up to 30 hours of debate on circuit court nominees and 2 hours on district court nominees.

Following invocation of the nuclear option, Republicans closed down the confirmation process for the rest of the session by refusing to attend executive business meetings or vote on consensus nominees previously scheduled for a floor vote. In an act of further protest, Republicans returned 55 of the 56 pending nominees at the close of the 1st Session. (The Wilkens nomination was not returned because a cloture petition was pending on his nomination at the time of adjournment.)

2nd Session of Congress: Pre-Midterm Elections 

Ninety-five vacancies existed at the start of the 2nd Session, resulting in a vacancy rate of 11 percent. President Obama immediately renominated 54 of the 55 returned nominees, nine of whom were waiting for a floor vote when the 1st Session adjourned. The White House did not renominate Judge William Thomas to a district court seat because of opposition from Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL).  

Even though Republicans demanded a cloture vote on every nominee brought to the floor for a vote, they did not use all the available tools in their arsenal to obstruct the confirmation process. As a result, by the time Congress recessed for the mid-term elections in September, the Senate had confirmed 62 nominees, 12 for seats on the courts of appeals. Some of the nominees had been voted out of committee on a strictly party-line vote and would not have gotten a floor vote, absent the rule change. By the time the Senate recessed for the mid-term elections on September 19, the vacancy rate had dropped to seven percent.

Not all courts benefitted from the reduced vacancy rate. For example, at recess time, the district courts in Pennsylvania and Texas had a total of 17 vacancies; even though nominees for nine of those vacancies were pending in committee, further action had been delayed because of nomination skirmishes. Similarly, disagreement over a Georgia district court nominee, who was nominated as part of a package deal, prevented timely confirmation votes on several other Georgia nominees pending on the floor all session, including Jill Pryor. Originally nominated to the Eleventh Circuit in January 2013, she was finally given a floor vote this past June and was confirmed by a vote of 97-0.

Midterm Elections

Senators returned to work on November 12 to a changed dynamic. With Republicans in control of the Senate next Congress, Mitch McConnell will be Majority Leader and Harry Reid will be Minority Leader. Senator Grassley will chair the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senator Leahy will assume the position of Ranking Member. There will be additional changes to the committee roster, but assignments likely will not be announced until the start of the new Congress.

There is much speculation over how a Republican Senate will handle the nomination and confirmation process next Congress. While Republicans cannot stop action on President Obama’s nominees during the remainder of this Congress, next Congress they could refuse to work with President Obama to identify potential nominees for district court vacancies or block action on nominees pending in committee or on the floor. It also is unclear how the administration will respond to the new dynamic. While partisanship and delay is likely to increase, neither history nor self-interest suggests a complete breakdown of the nomination process. Approximately three dozen of the current and announced future vacancies exist in states with two Republican senators, and a dozen of those vacancies have been declared judicial emergencies due to a combination of the duration of the vacancy and excessive workload of the court. 

Lame Duck Session

As soon as the  Senate reconvened on November 17, the administration and Senators Leahy and Reid demonstrated their intention to schedule action on as many pending nominees as possible before adjournment: in the first week of the lame duck session, the President submitted three new nominations, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported out nine, and the Senate confirmed eight judges.

On December 13, Senator Grassley expressed his opposition to voting on nominees who had been reported out of committee during the lame duck session. His objection was noted, but not heeded.   

On December 16, prior to adjourning sine die, the Senate quickly confirmed 12 district court nominees, 11 by voice vote, and likely set new records for the highest number of nominees voted on in one day and adjourning sine die with only one nominee pending on the floor. (Thirteen additional nominees were pending in committee at adjournment.) The change to the filibuster rule last November set the stage for this remarkable event, but the delay over passing the final appropriations bill for FY 2015 gave the Majority Leader the time he needed to file cloture and schedule these final confirmation votes. Among the judges confirmed on the last day of the 113th Congress were Robert Pitman to a seat on the District Court for the Western District of Texas that had remained vacant for more than six years, and Amos Massant and Robert Schroeder for district court seats in the Eastern District of Texas.

In total, 27 judges were confirmed during the lame duck session.

Final Statistics for the 113th Congress.

During the 113th Congress, President Obama made 152 nominations and Congress confirmed 134:  23 to the courts of appeals, 109 to the district courts, and two to the Court of International Trade. Three nominations were withdrawn (including one nomination that could not overcome a filibuster), and 14 nominations were returned to the President when Congress adjourned sine die.

  • 1stSession Summary: The 1st Session started with 77 judicial vacancies and adjourned with 94 vacancies. Forty-five judges were confirmed: 34 to the district courts and 11 to the courts of appeals. Congress returned 55 of the 56 pending nominations. Robert Leon Wilkins’ nomination was not returned.

  •  2nd Session Summary: President Obama renominated all of the returned nominees except William L. Thomas (USDC: S.D. FL). The 2nd Session started with 92 vacancies and ended with 41 vacancies, reducing the vacancy rate to 5%. Eighty-nine judges were confirmed during the session, 12 for vacancies on the courts of appeals. 

Need for Additional Authorized Judgeships

To further add to the strain on the federal judiciary, new judgeships are desperately needed, especially in the southwest border courts, where caseloads are crippling.

Congress has not passed a comprehensive judgeships bill since 1990, when lawmakers authorized 85 new positions, including 80 permanent and five temporary judicial seats. Since then, Congress has occasionally approved smaller batches of new judgeships, but the overall number of authorized positions has increased by just 32, according to data from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

At the request of the Judicial Conference of the United States, Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) and Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT) introduced S. 1385, which would have created 70 permanent and 21 temporary judgeships at both the district and appellate court levels. The bill also would convert eight existing temporary district court judgeships into permanent positions. The bill was based on the recommendations of the Judicial Conference. The Conference stated in a letter to Leahy that increasing caseloads have “created enormous difficulties” in courts around the country and  singled out five district courts in Arizona, California, Delaware, and Texas as “struggling with extraordinarily high and sustained workloads." Senator Coons, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Bankruptcy and the Courts, held a hearing before his subcommittee on September 10, 2013, to evaluate the proposal. The ABA, which adopted policy in August 2013 supporting the Judicial Conference’s recommendation for additional authorized judgeships, testified at the hearing. The legislation received no further action during the rest of the Congress. The hearing, however, did lead Senator Sessions to request that the Government Accountability Office to take a fresh look at its 2003 assessment of the method by which the Judicial Conference determines judgeship needs. The study is in progress.

 Judgeship provisions were also incorporated into Appropriations immigration reform bills. Both the FY 2014 and FY 2015 omnibus appropriations bills, as signed into law, extended nine temporary judgeships in eight district courts for one year. S. 744, the Border Security Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, which passed the Senate June 27, 2013, would have provided additional permanent district court judgeships to the Arizona, California, and Texas to deal with the increase in judicial workload. The House never acted, and the legislation died. 

113th Congress Charts

Senate Action on Current Nominees. This ABA chart provides the status of each current nominee's progress through each step of the confirmation process. 

Judicial Emergencies. This chart, prepared by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO), lists the vacancies it considers to be “judicial emergencies,” based on the length of time the seat has been vacant and the caseload of the court. 

Future Vacancies. This AO chart lists the Article III judges who have provided advance notice of the date on which they intend to leave active service. The Judicial Conference of the Unites States encourages -- but does not require -- district and circuit court judges to provide 12 months advance notice. In addition to those announced in advance, vacancies will arise during the course of the year as a result of judicial elevations, resignations, deaths and other unanticipated circumstances.

Vacancies for Which There are No Nominees. This chart, prepared by the Alliance for Justice (AFJ), identifies whether either of the state’s senators has forwarded to the Administration nomination recommendations for vacant seats on district courts within the senator’s state. AFJ compiles this information from news reports and other public sources. The ABA has not verified its accuracy.

Confirmations during the 113th Congress by the Month. This ABA chart provides a visual snapshot of the pace of confirmations.

Historical Charts 

Judicial Vacancies at the Beginning of each Month, January 2009-Present.This chart is a compilation of the number of vacancies in existence at the beginning of each month, as reported by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Snapshot of the Status of Judicial Vacancies, Nominations, and Confirmations from the 103rd-113th Congress (1993-2014). This ABA chart offers some historical perspective by chronicling the state of affairs at the start and end of the past 20 sessions of Congress.

Cloture Votes on Judicial Nominees during the Obama Administration, 2010-Present. This ABA chart is a compilation of information available on the U.S. Senate’s website.

Key Points

  • The Administration and the Senate must make the prompt filing of federal judicial vacancies an ongoing priority. The political branches should resolve to work cooperatively and across the political aisle to make substantial and lasting progress in filling vacancies. 
  • Persistently high numbers of judicial vacancies slows the wheels of justice, erodes public confidence, and deprives the nation of a federal court system that is equipped to serve the people. This has real consequences for the financial well-being of businesses and the personal lives of litigants whose cases may only be heard by the federal courts -- e.g., cases involving challenges to the constitutionality of a law, unfair business practices under federal antitrust laws, patent infringement, police brutality, employment discrimination, and bankruptcy.

Expediting Nominations

  • The Administration and Members of the Senate should work together to shorten the time between vacancy and nomination, especially for those vacancies classified "judicial emergencies." The Administration should redouble its efforts to identify nominees for circuit court positions, and home-state senators should do the same with regard to recommending potential nominees for district court vacancies.
  • Senators should be prepared to identify potential and to submit recommendations the President as early as possible in the process. Senators new to the process should give consideration to establishing a screening process in advance of need and should initiate the process as soon as a future district court vacancy in the Senator's state is announced. 

Expediting Confirmations

  • The Senate should give every nominee an up-or-down vote within a reasonable time after the Senate Judiciary Committee reports the nomination. 
  • To avoid unnecessary delay, the Senate should schedule votes seriatim on all pending nominees for whom there is strong bipartisan support and who were reported by the Senate Judiciary Committee with little or no opposition. On the other hand, legitimate concerns over a nominee's qualifications require full debate and understandably will delay a floor vote for a reasonable amount of time.