When President Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, the federal appeals court based in Virginia was known as one of the most conservative benches in the country. Two Obama terms later, Democratic appointees hold a 10-5 majority on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a panel of which issued a groundbreaking ruling this April backing transgender rights. The shift to the left on the court, which hears cases from Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina, highlights a widely overlooked aspect of Obama's legacy. His appointments of dozens of judges to the country's influential federal appeals courts have tilted the judiciary in a liberal direction that will influence rulings for years to come and be further entrenched if Democrat Hillary Clinton wins this November's presidential election.
A Reuters review of rulings by the courts over the last two years shows Obama's appointees to the appeals courts have influenced major legal battles likely to ultimately reach the Supreme Court. Obama-appointed judges have voted in favor of broad civil rights protections, major Obama administration regulations and gun regulations and against Republican-backed voting rules. When seeking to appoint judges, the White House has said it is looking for highly credentialed lawyers reflecting the diversity of U.S. society. Conservative critics say he has picked judges who are willing to circumvent the law in order to reach preferred outcomes. "There's no question President Obama's nominees have absolutely been part of his effort to transform the country and move it dramatically to the left," said Carrie Severino, a conservative legal activist. White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement that Obama's appointees "all share impeccable qualifications, unquestioned integrity, and a steadfast commitment to equal justice under the law."
The appeals courts are the first stop for any case appealed from the lower U.S. district courts and often have the last word. The next and final destination is the Supreme Court, but it hears fewer than 100 cases a year. The appeals courts handle 35,000 a year according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Of the 13 appeals courts, nine now have a majority of Democratic appointees, compared with one when Obama took office, according to research carried out by Russell Wheeler, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
In addition to appointing two Supreme Court justices and dozens of district court judges, Obama appointments now make up 55 of the current 168 appeals court judges, according to the judiciary. Obama's current total of 323 district and appeals court appointments, most of them district court judges, is similar to the tallies achieved by other recent two-term presidents. The regional appeals courts are currently more powerful than ever because of the vacancy on the Supreme Court caused by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, which has left the court divided equally between liberals and conservatives. If the ideologically divided court splits 4-4, the appeals court ruling is left intact. Such an outcome occurred four times in the Supreme Court term that recently ended. Scalia's seat is unlikely to be filled until next year due to political opposition from Republicans in the Senate, which has the job of confirming nominees.