Trump’s Power Won’t Peak for Another 20 Years

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The Atlantic Magazine

By the early 2040s, Trump-appointed chief judges will simultaneously sit atop nearly every appeals court in the country.

The Trump presidency may be over, but the Trump era has only just begun—at least when it comes to influence over the nation’s courts. Measured solely by the number of judges he appointed, Donald Trump’s impact is staggering: 234 judges, including 54 powerful appellate judges, almost one out of every three. By comparison, President Barack Obama appointed 172 judges (30 of them appellate) in his first term, while George W. Bush managed 204 (35 appellate). But Trump will have an even greater influence than this measurement suggests. That is because his judges won’t reach the apogee of their power until the early 2040s, when Trump-appointed chief judges are on track to simultaneously sit atop nearly every appeals court in the country.

This portends a potential disaster for progressive gains in many areas of law, including voting rights and health care. The limelight typically falls on the Supreme Court for these developments, but the lower courts are where much of the action happens. In its most recent term, which ended in July, the Supreme Court issued 63 signed opinions. The Circuit Courts of Appeals, by contrast, decided or issued orders on 48,300 cases in 2020. Although the Supreme Court has the final say, and Trump’s three new justices will shape the law for decades, the large majority of appeals—more than 97 percent—will be decided by the 12 geographic circuit courts, and the 167 appellate judges who sit on them. And the individuals who wield the most influence in shaping those outcomes are the chief judges of each circuit.

Officially, each chief judge has two roles: handling administrative matters and presiding over en banc (“full court”) hearings. Those are important, but they pale in comparison with the remarkable power the chief has behind the scenes—influencing which judges are assigned to which panels. A panel of three judges decides every appellate case, and the composition of those panels can be the whole ball game.

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