One of the most important powers of the president is nominating federal judges. These judges hold lifetime appointments and decide on legal rights and principles that are critical to protecting our health, rights, and communities. Currently, there are 145 judicial vacancies — meaning that President Donald Trump could shape the landscape of the courts for generations to come, regardless of how long he holds office.
The federal courts have been the people's last — and sometimes only — line of defense against damaging and unconstitutional attacks on our basic rights, like a person’s fundamental right to vote, to decide whether and when to become a parent, and to be free from discrimination based on their gender, their sexual orientation, their immigration status, their race, or their religious beliefs. The federal courts have been and will be our last line of defense against the Trump administration on the Affordable Care Act, the Muslim ban, and the environment.
The courts have also defined critical legal rights for women — including:
- The right to privacy, which led to the historic legalization of birth control
The constitutional right to access safe, legal abortion
The 2016 landmark ruling in Whole Woman’s v. Hellerstedt, which struck down unconstitutional abortion restrictions in Texas
Equal protection under the 14th Amendment
Anti-discrimination protections in the workplace and in education such as Title VII and Title IX
Protections for consumer health and safety
The ability to seek redress for violations of individual rights.
Why are there so many judicial vacancies?
When President Trump took office, there were 108 judicial vacancies that were left unfilled under President Obama due to Republican obstruction. Many of President Obama’s nominees never even received a hearing because Republican senators refused to return their blue slips (creating a procedural roadblock) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t hold a floor vote. This includes obstruction of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland. (Y’all remember that #DoYourJob campaign?)
We saw what happened when President Trump was able to have his pick of a Supreme Court Justice replacement: We got Judge Neil Gorsuch.
Justice Gorsuch has gone to extraordinary lengths to try to block people from care at Planned Parenthood. He ruled in favor of allowing bosses the ability to deny their employees birth control coverage, and he has an alarming record on reproductive and LGBTQ rights. If Justice Gorsuch is any indication of the types of judges that President Trump is tapping for lifetime appointments, we’re in big trouble.
Donald Trump and Neil Gorsuch.
The Senate has confirmed only seven judges this year, leaving 149 vacancies left to fill. So far, President Trump has sent nominees for 50 of these vacancies.
But McConnell wants to eliminate blue slips:
In an attempt to jam through as many anti-women’s health, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-voting rights judges as possible, McConnell wants to end the 100-year-old, bipartisan blue slip tradition. Getting rid of this process would end cooperation between the executive and legislative branches on judicial nominees and disincentivizes the White House from choosing judges with mainstream views.
What are blue slips?
Blue slips allow senators who represent the same state as the nominee to have a say in the confirmation process, regardless of their party and the party of the president. Senators can give their approval of a nominee by returning a blue slip, or they can reject a nominee by holding onto the blue slip. If either of the nominee’s home state senator doesn’t return the blue slip, the nominee won’t get a hearing.
No judicial nominee has been confirmed without a blue slip from both senators of their state in nearly 30 years, and fewer than five times in the last 100 years. Not a single Obama nominee received even a hearing in the Judiciary Committee, let alone a floor vote, without both blue slips having been returned.
Without the ‘blue slip,’ we’re going to have more judges who threaten fundamental American values and our fundamental rights.
What’s at stake?
Nearly a third of vacancies are in court systems that are so over capacity that they’ve been deemed “judicial emergencies” by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Senators willing to greenlight Trump’s agenda have been thrilled to move forward extreme, younger nominees (remember, these are lifetime appointments!) who pose a threat to our health, rights, and communities.
Currently, the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Eighth Circuit is threatening to end access to medication abortion entirely and eliminate abortion access at all but one health center in all of Arkansas. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and Tenth Circuit are weighing whether to allow Louisiana and Kansas, respectively, to block access to care at Planned Parenthood through Medicaid. With seven vacancies on circuit courts, our rights are at risk in these and many other states. We must not allow access to care depend on your zip code.
Because lower federal courts exercise enormous power in deciding cases involving our health, rights, and communities, judges appointed to these courts must demonstrate a commitment to safeguarding people’s fundamental rights and freedoms — and reflecting the values of equality and justice. Planned Parenthood will continue to fight against the confirmation of nominees that have a demonstrated record of hostility against reproductive health and rights.