MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's important to note that Supreme Court justices are not the only members of the judiciary - just the highest profile. So we'd like to take a few minutes to drill down on the Trump administration's overall record on filling the courts. And for this, we're joined now by NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.
Carrie, thank you so much for joining us.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.
MARTIN: So President Trump has gotten the Senate to confirm a record 26 appeals court judges and dozens more for the lower courts. More are expected in the coming weeks. How usual or unusual is this?
JOHNSON: This is unusual. President Trump's imprint on the federal bench will be felt for decades even after he leaves office. And that's by design. White House counsel Don McGahn, who's leaving his job soon, worked very closely with Senate Republicans to confirm Trump's judges - so closely that this week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley basically tweeted, say it ain't so when he heard McGahn was leaving. And Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called McGahn the most impressive White House counsel he'd ever observed during his time in Washington.
That's almost all due to the number of judges that McGahn has ushered through - as of this week, 26 federal appeals court judges, a record for this stage in a presidency, and more than 30 lower court judges. Plus, importantly, one Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, and another possibly on the way, Brett Kavanaugh.
MARTIN: So, Carrie, the fact that there were that many vacancies - that's not an accident.
JOHNSON: Not an accident at all - in fact, a strategy by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky, a guy who wanted to keep those seats open for the next president, whom he hoped would be Republican. That strategy worked. McConnell, of course, didn't even have a hearing on President Obama's Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland and kept a number of other seats from being filled, so President Trump had an unusually high number of vacancies when he walked in the door of the White House.
MARTIN: So let's talk about the kinds of people that the president has been choosing to serve on the federal courts. Tell us about them. Who are they?
JOHNSON: They're mostly white and male, far less diverse than President Obama's choices. In the last several months, though, Trump has identified more women, more Asian-Americans - overall, very few African-American and Latino judges. And these Trump judges are young - late 30s, early 40s, by and large. One candidate in his mid-50s told me he was considered to be too old to even apply for the job.
These Trump picks are also very conservative. I recently took a look at a new judge named Jim Ho. He's not a household name, but he's already making a lot of waves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. In his very short time in the bench, Ho's gone out of his way to stick his finger in the eye of liberals with opinions on abortion and gun rights and campaign finance.
Many of these picks by Donald Trump have been previously vetted by elite conservative groups like the Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation and the Susan B. Anthony List, which aims to limit abortion rights. One other goal, Michel, of the Trump administration is to usher in an era of deregulation - to crack down on what they call the administrative state - so these judges are largely pro-business types, too.
MARTIN: I think people who have followed this have noted that a number of these nominees have been rated as unqualified by the American Bar Association. What's happening there? And how unusual is that?
JOHNSON: This is a deliberate choice by the Trump White House not to wait to nominate people until they've been vetted by the ABA. In other words, Trump is pushing forward even without those ABA recommendations. He and the Senate Judiciary Committee have moved right along. And that means that some of the candidates who've advanced have been rated not qualified by the American Bar Association - five in all, by my count.
Some of those people have been confirmed, and others have run into trouble in committee. Just this week, a lawyer in Alaska took his name out of the running for a district court judgeship there. Looking at the big picture, the majority of Donald Trump's nominees are getting through this process even if they've received bad ratings from the ABA.
MARTIN: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.
JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.