There are thirteen U.S. District Courts of Appeal. Some are big and some are small. The Ninth Circuit, which covers the West Coast, serves 61 million people. The DC Circuit represents about 600,000. That’s a technicality, though, because the DC Circuit covers the Federal Government and therefore really serves the whole country. The DC Circuit is considered to be second in importance to the Supreme Court, and its Justices are often promoted to the Supreme Court. For these reasons, the Republicans refused to confirm any nominees to the DC Circuit during Obama’s entire first term, even as vacancies grew to four.
Their justification for inaction was that the DC Circuit isn’t that busy and it doesn’t need any more judges. I can’t say whether that argument has any merit or not, but the number of seats assigned to each circuit is decided by Congress, and if they’ve assigned too many to DC the thing to do is to change the law.
As it stands, Congress has assigned 11 seats to the DC Circuit. Three still remain unfilled. Of the eight sitting judges, three were nominated by Clinton, three were nominated by Dubya, one was nominated by Poppy, and one was nominated by Obama. So, the court is split evenly at the moment, but if Obama fills the vacancies there will be an 7-4 advantage of Democratic nominees over Republicans ones.
The GOP doesn’t want that to happen. But Harry Reid is setting them up. As part of his effort to break the obstruction of nominees in general, he plans to introduce the nominations for all three vacancies and then dare the Republicans to filibuster them. If they do, he’ll go nuclear and (try to) take away their right to filibuster nominations. Then Reid will follow up with the nominations for Labor, the EPA, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and possibly vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board.
But none of this will happen until after the immigration reform bill is dispensed with.