LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Pres. Obama has seen more than 300 federal judges confirmed since he took office six years ago. And that puts him ahead of both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at the same point in their presidencies. A huge chunk of Obama's confirmations happened in 2014. That's a year after the Senate Democrats got rid of the filibuster for most judicial nominations. NPR's Ailsa Chang reports.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: OK. I'm about to throw a bunch of numbers at you. I'm sorry, but you really can't understand the kind of sweep Pres. Obama had in 2014 without them. So consider these. Eighty-nine judges were confirmed in 2014. That's the highest yearly total in two decades. And it's almost a third of all of Obama's confirmations since he first took office. Here's another figure - before 2014 about three quarters of Obama's judicial nominees were getting confirmed. Now that rate is more than 90 percent. That's better than either Presidents Bush or Clinton did at the six-year mark. And finally this - Obama got 27 judges confirmed just during the lame-duck session alone. That's the most ever in lame duck history. It made for some grumpy Senate Republicans the last days of session, like Orrin Hatch of Utah.
SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: These type of people ought to be confirmed after the first year when you have the new people here. We've always done it that way, but Harry Reid's trying to push it over.
CHANG: Actually, the majority leader had been pushing through nominees all year, methodically holding floor vote after floor vote. Democrats like Tom Harkin of Iowa say they were just making up for lost time.
SENATOR TOM HARKIN: They spent two years making it harder and harder to get judges. And at the end when we've finally got them through, they say, oh, you shouldn't be putting them through so fast. Well, that's because they kept us from doing this for two years.
CHANG: If you ask both Democrats and Republicans why 2014 yielded a bumper crop of confirmations, most will point to a Senate rules change Democrats rammed through last November to get rid of the filibuster for most judicial nominations. But the man who compiled all the numbers you heard says don't give that rules change too much credit. Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institution points out that only a small fraction of nominees in 2014 got enough no votes to suggest they would have fallen victim to filibusters.
RUSSELL WHEELER: Most of the nominees this year who did get confirmed oftentimes got confirmed so with very just token opposition. So I think we have to be careful with cause and effect.
CHANG: Wheeler says there are other reasons the president saw such a spike in confirmations last year.
WHEELER: One is he just - he was slow out of the box. For whatever reason, the White House didn't have its act together, and it's gotten its act together now. Secondly, you have this really extraordinary push on the part of Senate Democrats this last year to get as many confirmations as possible.
CHANG: When Obama first took office, 10 of the 13 appeals courts had more judges appointed by Republican than Democratic presidents. Now Democratic appointees form the majority in nine of the 13 appeals courts. But Michael Gerhardt at the University of North Carolina School of Law says you won't see an ideologically transformed bench.
MICHAEL GERHARDT: So he's not appointing extremists, I suppose one might say, or people that fall to the extremes - let's say to the left. But it's not clear that Pres. Obama ever favored appointing people extremely to the left.
CHANG: What he has favored is appointing women and minorities at a higher rate than any president in history, but that started long before filibuster-free 2014. White males have always formed the minority of Obama nominees. He's also appointed 11 openly gay or lesbian federal judges. There was only one before 2009. Nan Aron of the liberal advocacy group Alliance for Justice says a diverse bench builds trust in the judicial system.
NAN ARON: It's important for people to have some confidence that when they step into a courtroom that there is someone there who might, in fact, even look like themselves hearing their cases.
CHANG: Many expect that 2014 will be as good as it will get for Obama's judicial nominations. No one expects a Republican-controlled Senate to keep up that same pace. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, Washington.