President Trump has more than 120 federal judicial spots to fill


The fight over Judge Neil Gorsuch's nomination to the Supreme Court is overshadowing an area where President Trump might actually be able to make an even bigger change to our judicial system: the lower federal courts.

The Constitution gives the president power to nominate not just Supreme Court justices but also judges on the court of appeals and district court judges. Each one of those judges has to be confirmed by the Senate, and each is a lifetime appointment.

Obama only had 54 federal judicial vacancies when he took office. Today, Trump has a staggering 124 spots to fill. Many of these seats are open because, when Republicans retook the Senate in 2015, confirmation of Obama nominees essentially stopped.

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Where SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch stands on key issues
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Where SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch stands on key issues

Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch looks on as Senate Judiciary Committee. President Donald Trump has nominated Judge Gorsuch to the Supreme Court to fill the seat that had left vacant with the death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016.

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Abortion

Gorsuch has never directly ruled on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion in the U.S., but he was pressed on the landmark ruling during his Senate confirmation hearing. 

When Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked Gorsuch what he would have done if President Trump asked him to overturn Roe v. Wade, the judge responded, "I would have walked out the door. It's not what judges do. I don't do it at that end of Pennsylvania Avenue and they shouldn't do it at this end either, respectfully."

Some refer to passages from a book Gorsuch wrote on assisted suicide. In the book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, Gorsuch wrote, "The idea that all human beings are intrinsically valuable and the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong."

(Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Second Amendment

Gorsuch has never directly ruled on the Second Amendment. However, during his confirmation hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) questioned Gorsuch on District of Columbia v. Heller -- a landmark ruling that overturned a ban on handguns and certain requirements when storing guns in Washington D.C. 

Gorsuch offered limited responses to Feinstein's questioning, but did conclude that Heller was the "law of the land." 

(REUTERS/John Sommers II/File Photo)

Religion

Gorsuch is widely regarded as a strong proponent of religious liberty.

In a landmark ruling, Gorsuch sided with an employer in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. case in 2013, making it legal for a non-profit organization to deny employees access to contraceptives if it goes against their religious beliefs. The case ultimately reached the Supreme Court, where it was also ruled in the favor of Hobby Lobby. 

In another case, Gorsuch ruled in favor of a Wyoming inmate. The ruling allowed the inmate to use a prison yard sweat lodge, that he had previously been denied access to, for Native American religious worship.

(Getty)

Immigration

Gorsuch has not hinted to how he feels about President Trump's proposed travel ban, and many experts are split on how the SCOTUS nominee would vote on the executive order that bans immigrants from six majority-Muslim countries. The ban is currently suspended following rulings by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland. 

Gorsuch has sided with immigrants in past cases, and as Cornell University constitutional law professor Michael Dorf noted to the Denver Post -- "Gorsuch’s sympathy for people in religious cases, a general skepticism of executive power and a history of ruling for immigrants give some reason to think he could be sympathetic to plaintiffs challenging a ban on people from certain countries."

(REUTERS/Eric Thayer)

Environment

In the 2015 case Energy and Environment Legal Institute vs. Epel, Gorsuch sided with a Colorado law that requires 20 percentage of electricity sold in the state to be from renewable sources. The case was filed by an out-of-state coal company, claiming the law was a threat to interstate commerce. 

(REUTERS/Jim Urquhart)

LGBTQ rights

When pressed about gay rights and strict interpretations of the law by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D-Calif.) during his confirmation hearing, Gorsuch responded that "no one is looking to return us to horse and buggy days."

"We’re trying to interpret the law faithfully, taking principles that are enduring and a Constitution that was meant to last ages and apply it and interpret it to today’s problems." 

Gorsuch also told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "A good judge starts with precedent and doesn’t reinvent the wheel. So to the extent, there are decisions on these topics — and there are — a good judge respects precedent."

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Marijuana

While Gorsuch does hail from Colorado, the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use, it is still unclear where he stands on the issue.

In 2015, Gorsuch ruled against a dispensary, forcing the company to pay taxes on items they wrote off as business expenses in an effort to avoid incriminating themselves due to a federal law banning marijuana. 

(Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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And that gives President Trump a lot of power to remake the federal judicial system to his liking.

The Constitution doesn't lay out any formal qualifications or process for being nominated. When a seat opens, the president gets recommendations from all over, including Congress, other judges, the FBI and the Justice Department. But the final choice lies with the president.

SEE MORE: Neil Gorsuch Tells Senators He Wouldn't Bend To Trump On Supreme Court

Though the Supreme Court gets most of our attention, less than 200 cases make it there every year — which means much of our legal guidance comes from these lower courts. And issues like gun control, abortion rights and voter ID laws will be in the hands of a large number of judges chosen by Trump.

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Inside the hearing for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch
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Inside the hearing for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch
With his wife Louise looking on,U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch testifies during the second day of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 21, 2017.
U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch testifies during the second day of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 21, 2017.
U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch testifies during the second day of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 21, 2017.
Former U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) (from L) and Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch's wife Marie Louise Gorsuch listen to opening statements from fellow senators during the first day of Gorsuch's Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
With his wife Louise looking on, U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch testifies during the second day of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
With his wife Louise (2ndL) and former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (L) looking on,U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch testifies during the second day of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Neil Gorsuch (C) leaves after his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing as US President Donald Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill, in Washington March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool
Neil Gorsuch takes an oath during his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing as US President Donald Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill, in Washington March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool
U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch is embraced by his wife Marie Louise after he thanked her in his opening statement at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Neil Gorsuch takes an oath during his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing as US President Donald Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill, in Washington March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch looks at his papers as he delivers his opening remarks at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
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