SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
One of the things that attracted politically orthodox conservatives to Donald Trump's unorthodox candidacy and presidency was his vow to reshape the federal judiciary. Over four years, 226 of his nominees joined the federal bench. Just over a year into his presidency, President Joe Biden can count 42 new judges, a pace not seen since President Ronald Reagan. Gbemende Johnson is a professor of government at Hamilton College in New York state. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.
GBEMENDE JOHNSON: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: What are the significance of these judges? What do you note?
JOHNSON: The diversity of the appointments. So far, the vast majority have been women, and the majority have also been people of color. This is something that the Biden administration campaigned on. If you recall, at one point, Biden said that he wanted to appoint the first Black woman Supreme Court justice. He hasn't had that opportunity, but he definitely is holding to that diversity promise with the lower court appointments.
SIMON: What about diversity of backgrounds? I've been interested in what I've read about that.
JOHNSON: So that's another area of diversity that tends to get less attention but is also very important. It's not uncommon to have a federal judge who has a background as a prosecutor. That's considered to be, you know, one of the pipeline positions to perhaps federal judgeship. However, given Biden's priorities and, of course, some of the constituencies that he's been responsive to, you see some of his appointees, a good proportion of them have backgrounds as public defenders, as well. And that's typically been less common. Some of them have experience working with organizations like the Innocence Project, civil rights lawyers, ACLU, NAACP Legal Defense Fund - so definitely a broad diversity of experiences but experiences that are going to perhaps reflect the policy priorities and legal priorities of the administration.
SIMON: Is it just generational that I can remember when Democratic politicians would appoint lifelong Republicans as judges and vice versa out of the belief that, you know, it's important for the system to be bipartisan? Has the system gotten politicized?
JOHNSON: Well, so you definitely see - over time, polarization in Congress has increased. And that emerges not only in, you know, the legislation that gets created and passed, but you also see that affecting the judicial appointment process. It's always been a political process. But you definitely see more conflict and more focus on getting judges who each party believes will reliably make decisions in a way that reflect the priorities of the party.
SIMON: Boy, I've got to tell you, I'm sitting here feeling almost wistful for a time when I thought the whole idea of a judge was not to follow their political background but to have the training and temperament and character and experience to put all that aside and render a judgment.
JOHNSON: Well, I think that's still here. So I definitely would say that when you look at the profiles of, for example, Biden's nominees, they're very impressive in terms of...
JOHNSON: ...Legal career, legal training. So the training, the temperament is there. But with that comes a whole wealth of experiences that will at least influence the preferences that someone may have in terms of ways in which they interpret the law. It's not that they are ignoring it or perhaps looking at things incorrectly, although some may disagree with that. It's just that with law, there's usually always some room for interpretation. And that interpretation can vary depending on the judge who is looking at a case.
SIMON: And 42 is an impressive number. But it's still a fraction of what the Trump administration was able to confirm, isn't it?
JOHNSON: Yeah, so Biden has had a record first year. But Trump did extremely well. But he had, you know, four years to do that. And Biden didn't enter the presidency with as many vacancies as Trump had. But as the presidency continues, you have more and more vacancies arise. So you're going to have more emerge, and you know, the administration wants to take advantage of them as quickly as possible.
SIMON: If there's a change in the margin of the U.S. Senate following the next midterms - or I suppose, even if there's not, is that going to make it harder for President Biden to get nominees through?
JOHNSON: Yes. If Biden loses the Senate, it's going to make it extremely difficult. So one of the reasons why the administration is moving so fast is because there's the recognition that, you know, the Senate landscape could change and make this a lot more difficult.
SIMON: Gbemende Johnson, professor at Hamilton College, thanks so much for being with us.
JOHNSON: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
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