On 2 November 2018, the US Supreme Court issued a writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in the case of American Humanist Association v Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission No. 15-2597 2017, thereby agreeing to hear the case of a 93-year-old war memorial in the shape of a cross (SCOTUS Blog). The memorial was completed in 1925 to commemorate 49 local residents who had died in World War I. In 2014, the American Humanist Association sued Maryland public bodies responsible for the upkeep of the monument alleging that it “discriminates against patriotic soldiers who are not Christian, sending a callous message to non-Christians that Christians are worthy of veneration while they may as well be forgotten” (Fox News). In 2017, the Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled 2-1 in the case of American Humanist Association v Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission No. 15-2597 2017 that even assuming that the monument had some nonreligious function, “the sectarian elements easily overwhelm the secular ones” and that “the cross is by far the most prominent monument in the area, conspicuously displayed at a busy intersection” [p22] and as such its presence on a public land violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In March 2018 the Court sitting en benc refused to reconsider the case and Maryland petitioned the Supreme Court for a permission to appeal (The Washington Post).
The jurisprudence of the US Supreme Court in cases concerning the Establishment Clause is far from being clear. The Court has struggled over the years to agree on a set of precise directions as to when a religious symbol on a public land would violate the First Amendment. This has led to confusing rulings whereby some symbols have been upheld and others not. For instance, in 2005, in the case of Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677, the Court ruled 5-4 that a Ten Commandments monolith on the Texas State Capitol grounds did not violate the Constitution. On the other hand, on the same day in 2005, in the case of McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, 545 U.S. 844, the Court also ruled 5-4 that a Ten Commandments display at the McCreary County courthouse in Kentucky did violate the First Amendment. The two cases were extremely similar yet the Court reached the opposite conclusions. In both cases it was Justice Breyer who acted as the Swing Vote. With those two cases, the US Supreme Court has sent mixed signals to lower courts on the subject of the Establishment Clause. Nevertheless, the Court is now almost 15 years older and its composition has also changed, presumably became more conservative in nature. As a result, the majority of the bench might now have enough votes to articulate some clear guiding principles as to how lower courts should deal with similar cases in the future.
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.
With the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh for Justice Kennedy’s seat at the Supreme Court, some commentators raised the issue of President Trump rapidly transforming the Federal Courts by appointing a record number of District and Circuit Court Judges (e.g The Guardian here and here). This claim is based mostly on the fact that a record number of such Judges have been appointed in President Trump’s first 1,5 years in the office comparing with previous Presidents (e.g. The Hill here). In as much as this is probably true, the claim that President Trump will appoint an unprecedented number of lower Courts Judges is rather misleading. As of 25 July 2018, President Trump has nominated 137 Judges of the so called Article III Courts (USCourts.gov). Although this seems like a high number for only 1,5 years into the presidency, so far the US Senate has confirmed only 44 of those 137 nominations (including 1 Justice of the Supreme Court, 23 Judges for the United States Courts of Appeals and 20 Judges for the United States District Courts). This is still claimed to be one of the highest numbers for any presidency after only 1,5 years. However, even if this pace is maintained, and President Trump is re-elected in 2020, he will have only appointed around 234 Judges throughout his two terms. This is not even close to his predecessor, President Obama, who appointed 308 Judges between 2008 and 2016. It is also far from the three record-holders in this regard, President Clinton, President Reagan and President W. Bush, who appointed 357, 347 and 310 Judges, respectively.
Even this calculation is based on the assumption that (a) President Trump will be re-elected and (b) that the Republicans are able to retain the Senate majority of at least 51 votes throughout the two presidential terms. Both assumptions are easy to displace. In fact, the Republicans might as well lose the Senate majority in the November mid-term elections and, given the degree to which the judicial confirmation process has been politicised, none of President Trump’s nominees awaiting a confirmation hearing might receive his or her judicial commission after all. It is clear that a Democratic Senate will not help President Trump elevate conservative Judges to the Federal Courts. In such case, President Trump might end up on the lower end of the SCOTUSBlog ranking with no more than 50 judicial appointments in total.