President Trump has made clear on several occasions that judicial nominations are one of his top priorities. In terms of Appeal Courts, as of 15 September 2018, he has successfully appointed 26 Circuit Judges, with further 10 nominations pending before the Senate and another 3 positions awaiting his nomination (13 vacancies in total). Many commentators have been pointing out that President Trump might not only change the constitution of the US Supreme Court by appointing Judge Gorsuch (and most likely Judge Kavanaugh) to its bench, but also flip majorities of at least some Appeal Circuits. However, upon a closer examination, this seems rather unlikely, at least in President Trump’s first term in office.
The US Courts of Appeals are grouped in 11 Circuits in addition to the so called special DC Circuit. As of 15 September 2018, the 1st Circuit is the only one which has not had any vacancies since the last general election and as such it has a stable 4-2 Democratic majority. The 2nd Circuit has 3 vacancies but even if filled by President Trump, it will retain a Democratic majority of 7-6. The 3rd Circuit has 2 vacancies and it has already seen 1 judge appointed to its bench by President Trump in addition to 4 judges appointed by previous Republican Presidents so assuming President Trump fills those 2 empty seats, the Circuit will be evenly split 7-7 between the Republican and Democratic appointees. The 4th Circuit has also had 2 judges appointed to its bench by President Trump on top of 4 judges appointed by previous Republican Presidents but it retains a stable Democratic majority of 8-6. The 5th Circuit currently has 1 vacancy, 5 Trump appointees and 6 other Republican-appointed judges making its overwhelmingly Republican 12-5. The 6th Circuit is also overwhelmingly Republican with 4 Trump appointees on top of 7 other Republican-appointed judges adding up to a strong 11-5 Republican majority. The situation is similar in the 7th Circuit which has 4 Trump appointees in addition to other 5 judges appointed by previous Republican Presidents adding up to a stable 9-2 Republican majority. This is again seen in the 8th Circuit where President Trump has appointed 3 judges on top of 7 other Republican-appointed judges adding up to an overwhelming Republican majority of 10-1. The most liberal of all the Circuits, the famous 9th Circuit currently has 7 vacancies, 1 Trump appointee and another 5 Republican-appointed judges but even assuming all those vacancies are filled by President Trump, the Circuit will nevertheless retain a stable Democratic majority of 16-13. A stable Democratic majority of 7-5 will also hold in the 10th Circuit where President Trump has appointed 2 judges on top of another 3 appointed by previous Republican Presidents. The 11th Circuit is another Circuit which is evenly split 6-6 between the Democratic and Republican appointees after President Trump has appointed 3 judges in addition to another 3 Republican-appointed judges already on the bench. Finally, the DC Circuit consisting of 1 Trump appointee and 3 other Republican-appointed judges also retains a stable Democratic majority of 7-4.
Given the structure of vacancies inherited by President Trump, it is unlikely that his appointments will be able to flip any Appeal Circuit. As of 15 September 2018, despite any appointments made so far, and any other likely to be made in President Trump’s first term, Democratic-appointed judges hold majorities in 6 Circuits (1st, 2nd, 4th, 9th, 10th and the DC Circuit) and Republican-appointed judges hold majorities in 4 Circuits (5th, 6th, 7th and 8th). The only difference made by President Trump’s appointments to the Appeal Courts could be observed in the 3rd and 11th Circuits which moved from stable Democratic majorities to being evenly split. In any event, with the appointment of Judge Gorsuch and the likely appointment of Judge Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, it is not the Appeal Courts where President Trump intends to make his judicial legacy most visible.