The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Cory Wilson of Mississippi to a New Orleans-based circuit court over united Democratic opposition, handing President Donald Trump the 200th federal judicial confirmation of his tenure and achieving a Republican goal of filling every appeals court opening by the end of the year.
In winning Senate approval, Wilson, a conservative state court judge and former Mississippi legislator, became the 53rd federal appeals court judge installed by Trump and cemented a milestone in a judicial legacy that has reshaped the federal courts during Trump’s administration, including putting in place two Supreme Court justices. Republicans lauded the achievement. The vote was 52-48.
“This will be a historic moment for this body and for the administration,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., a strong supporter of Wilson. The Senate’s confirmation of 200 judges since 2017, he said, is the highest total in a president’s first term since President Jimmy Carter.
“The seat we are voting to fill is actually the last remaining circuit court vacancy at this time, reflecting the remarkable progress we have made in rebuilding the federal judiciary,” Wicker added.
Under Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, Senate Republicans have prioritized confirming conservative judges over considering legislation in the sharply divided chamber, since nominations can be advanced with no support from minority Democrats.
McConnell even adopted an informal slogan to characterize the effort: Leave no vacancy behind. This year, Republicans have stepped up their efforts to confirm as many of Trump’s judicial nominees as possible before November, when the president could lose reelection or they could lose their Senate majority, eliminating their iron grip on the confirmation process.
“Following Number 200, when we depart this chamber today, there will not be a single circuit court vacancy anywhere in the nation for the first time in at least 40 years,” McConnell said Wednesday, repeating the statistic for emphasis. “It’s a victory for the rule of law and for the Constitution itself.”
McConnell’s staff lost little time in declaring the achievement a victory for him as well, quickly posting a glossy video on Twitter celebrating the “new milestone in reshaping the courts,” underscoring that the majority leader considers his impact on the courts to be his crowning achievement.
Before the vote, Democrats unsuccessfully called on McConnell to pull the nomination from the floor, saying that Wilson was a shameful choice at the current moment because of his record on voting rights, among other objections.
“Judge Wilson has been an ardent supporter of restrictive voting measures, including voter ID laws, that disproportionately harm minority voters; and he has shown a pattern of dismissing legitimate concerns from voting rights groups,” Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota wrote to McConnell.
“Appointing someone to the 5th Circuit who refers to the concerns of African American citizens and community advocates regarding the effects of voter ID laws as ‘poppycock’ is a slap in the face to Black Americans at a time when our country is working to take steps forward on racial justice, not backwards,” the Democrats wrote.
Democrats also faulted Wilson for his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, saying he and another appeals court judge confirmed last week, Judge Justin Walker of Kentucky, were being placed on the courts to help unravel the law.
But a series of changes to Senate rules since 2013 have essentially eliminated the ability of the minority to hold up judicial nominations, a significant factor in empowering Republicans to push through hundreds of new federal judges despite deep Democratic opposition to most of them.
Republicans purposefully focused on the appeals courts, saying that most of the major, binding court rulings occur at that level since the Supreme Court hears a relatively small number of cases.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said it was the first time since the Reagan administration that there were no vacancies among the 179 appellate judgeships authorized by Congress. He noted that the aggressive push by the Trump White House and Senate Republicans had shifted the makeup of three circuits from a majority of judges nominated by Democrats to a majority nominated by Republicans. The effort had also added to the existing majority of Republican-nominated judges on other circuits and increased conservative representation on the liberal 9th Circuit on the West Coast, he said.
It is possible that more vacancies could still occur this year, and Republicans have indicated they would move to fill them despite an informal tradition of suspending judicial confirmations late in an election year.
More than 70 U.S. District Court vacancies remain. The pace of filling them has moved more slowly because home-state Democrats still have influence over those choices, complicating efforts by the Trump administration to win swift confirmation of its preferred candidates.