When Judge Carmen Consuelo Cerezo went on the federal court, District of Puerto Rico, it was May 14, 1980, and the president who appointed her was Jimmy Carter. She was just under 40 at the time, and today, at 80, she is the last active member of the federal bench who got her job from President Carter.
Judge Cerezo is the last ripple of a mighty wave of 262 federal judges named by Jimmy Carter, the all-time record for a one-term president. Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan holds the record for most federal court appointments, 402, in eight years, compared to Carter’s four.
40 years later and there’s that one bit of Carter in America’s judicial bloodstream. And the almost 30 years after Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush left the White House, close to three dozen of their appointees still rule on cases in the federal courts from a 1980s conservative point of view.
Lifetime appointees can be federal judges for a long, long time.
At last count, after four years of Donald Trump, the balance on the federal courts could hardly be more even, with 51 percent of federal judges having been named by Republicans, Reagan, Bush, Bush and Trump, 49 percent named by Democrats Carter, Clinton and Obama.
The largest share by far, 38 percent derive from Barack Obama, 28 percent from Donald Trump. Moving back in time shows that even judges appointed for life do die or retire. Presidential shares in the federal bench decline over time, 20 percent appointed by George W. Bush, 11 percent by Bill Clinton and two percent each for Reagan and the elder President Bush.
The bipartisan balance of federal judges rests on a fulcrum of resistance to social change. Both women and people of color are severely underrepresented on the federal bench and of our last half-dozen presidents, only Barack Obama seemed inclined to do much about it. 42 percent of his judicial appointments were women, 36 percent were people of color. Donald Trump reversed that trend, naming women for 24 percent of his judgeships and people of color for just 16 percent, the lowest rate since George H.W. Bush, almost 30 years ago.
Trump named a lot of judges, 245, the fastest annual rate since Carter; and his replacement campaign had more success the higher it went up the judicial pyramid. 27 percent of federal district court judges owe their jobs to Donald Trump, but 30 percent of federal appeals court judges and 33 and one-third percent of the Supreme Court are Trump appointees.
What does this mean for America’s future? In a word, “trouble.”
Elie Mystal is The Nation’s justice correspondent—covering the courts, the criminal justice system, and politics—and the force behind the magazine’s monthly column “Objection!” He is also an Alfred Knobler Fellow at the Type Media Center.
Mystal is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, a former associate at Debevoise & Plimpton, and a lifelong New York Mets fans. One of those things is not like the others. Prior to joining The Nation, Mystal was the executive editor of Above the Law. He’s a frequent guest on MSNBC and Sirius XM. He will resist.