If you want to understand how the Senate has functioned since Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took over as Senate Majority Leader last January, the number 11 offers a clear window into McConnell’s entire philosophy of governance — or perhaps, non-governance. According to the Federal Judicial Center, the Republican-controlled Senate confirmed just 11 judges this year. That compares to 40 during President George W. Bush’s seventh year in office, 34 during President Bill Clinton’s seventh year, and 44 at this point in Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Notably, all three of these presidents also spent their seventh year during a period of divided government when the opposite party controlled the Senate, and yet judicial confirmations only slowed to their current crawl under Majority Leader McConnell.
One of the judges confirmed in 2015, moreover, Judge Kara Farnandez Stoll, was elevated to a federal appeals court — the remaining ten were confirmed as district judges, the lowest ranking judges with lifetime appointment. And Judge Stoll joined the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, a highly specialized court that primarily deals with patents. Historically, confirmations to this specialized court have been far less political than confirmations to the 12 circuit courts of general jurisdiction.
McConnell has not exactly been shy about his desire to keep new judges from being confirmed. Last June, he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that it was “highly likely” that no appeals court judges will be confirmed this year. McConnell even managed to create significant roadblocks to judicial confirmations when he was Minority Leader, largely due to the historic spike in filibusters that his caucus engaged in under his leadership.
This spike in filibusters eventually led the Senate to change its rules to eliminate the minority’s ability to block most confirmations in 2013.