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How GOP efforts to reshape federal courts could affect the 2020 race

President Trump has made plenty of headlines for his policies and personality. But in the background, he is cementing a long-lasting legacy through his judicial nominations to federal appeals courts. Lisa Desjardins reports on how this little-noticed effort could influence the 2020 presidential election -- and federal courts for decades to come.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amid the constant swirl of news around the White House, there has been one constant in the Trump administration: a steady stream of the president's judicial nominees to federal courts across the country.

    Lisa Desjardins explains how this little-noticed effort could have an impact on the presidential election next year and on the courts for decades to come.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Vote by vote, Republicans are quietly reshaping federal courts.

  • Man:

    The yeas are 50. The nays are 41. The nomination is confirmed.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    With this vote yesterday, the Republican Senate confirmed Justin Walker as the 157th Trump appointee to get a lifetime position on the federal bench. More on him in a minute.

    First about that number, 157 federal judges confirmed. That is on par with figures for the presidents Clinton and Bush at this point in their terms, but it's at least 40 percent more than President Obama confirmed by this time, according to analysis by the Brookings Institution.

    This is a rally cry for President Trump.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We will have a record number of judges.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    If so, it will be thanks to Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, whose chamber decides the fate of nominees. And he is playing the long game.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.:

    I have always believed the single most powerful way the U.S. Senate can positively impact the country's future is through our role in confirming lifetime appointments to the federal courts.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    First, McConnell blocked President Obama's nominees toward the end of his term, leaving dozens of vacancies for the next president.

    And then, this spring, McConnell changed Senate rules to cut debate time for most judges from 30 hours each to just two hours. Since that rules change, the Senate is now a nomination factory. It is the body's main function.

  • Woman:

    The nomination is confirmed.

  • Man:

    The nomination is confirmed.

  • Man:

    The nomination is confirmed.

  • Jacqueline Thomsen:

    It makes things go so much faster within the Senate.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Jacqueline Thomsen covers judicial nominations and the federal courts for "The National Law Journal," and sees a breakneck pace.

  • Jacqueline Thomsen:

    It's just happening so fast that there just isn't even time for anybody to take a step back and think about the nominees that they're voting for on the scale that they were able to before.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Where President Trump particularly has crushed all other modern presidents is at the appeals court level, the level below the Supreme Court. Not yet three years into his presidency, already, nearly one-quarter of all appeals court judges are Trump appointees. And those courts decide thousands of pivotal cases.

    Federal courts have determined the fates of immigrant families and abortion policy, and regularly rule on laws about schools and workplaces alike.

    Now Republicans are not just focusing on numbers of judges, but also on confirming much younger ones.

    Again, "The National Law Journal"'s Jacqueline Thomsen:

  • Jacqueline Thomsen:

    We're seeing people in their 40s, not their 60s, getting nominated. So that means that they're going to be on the court for a while, and that they're really going to be able to shape the law in a way that lasts for far beyond the time that they are even on the bench.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This brings us back to Justin Walker, confirmed as a federal district judge yesterday.

    Walker is just 37 years old, a law professor at the University of Louisville. He is admired by Republicans, but, as Democrats point out, he has never tried a case as a lawyer.

  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.:

    Have you ever presented an argument before a federal jury?

  • Justin Walker:

    Senator, I have not, although, again…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That lack of courtroom experience drew an automatic not qualified rating from the nonpartisan American Bar Association. That is something that derailed nominees in the past, but no more.

    Walker is the fifth Trump nominee to get on the federal bench, despite being rated unqualified by the ABA. And the Senate is poised to vote on a sixth such nominee soon. To Republicans, the ABA is outdated and not the point. McConnell sees each new conservative judge as a political win which will outlive him, this president and presidents after that.

    And this is an issue that fires up Republican voters, something the Trump campaign is counting on next year.

  • Mike Pence:

    Four more years mean more judges.


  • Jacqueline Thomsen:

    They're able to say, we took an entire branch of the federal government, and we reshaped it in our image to reflect our values. And we didn't just do it for today and tomorrow. We did it for your children and your children's children.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    McConnell and the Senate show no signs of slowing. It's set to vote on another group of President Trump's nominees as soon as next week.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.

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