U.S. President Barack Obama nominated over 400 individuals for federal judgeships during his presidency. Of these nominations, Congress confirmed 329 judgeships, 173 during the 111th & 112th Congresses and 156 during the 113th and 114th Congresses.
Republicans successfully blocked some confirmations, either by filibuster or voting against cloture, even while the Democratic caucus held a Senate majority (2009–2015). Senator Chuck Grassley, then-ranking Republican on the judiciary, said that more nominees could have been considered if not for the January 2012 National Labor Relations Board recess appointments; the Supreme Court later unanimously ruled these January 2012 appointments illegal in NLRB v. Noel Canning.
In response, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid invoked the so-called parliamentary nuclear option on November 21, 2013, which changed the Senate's confirmation threshold for all executive nominees except for the Supreme Court. While Senate confirmations of Obama judicial nominees rose in 2014 following the "nuclear option," the greatest number of rejection of Obama nominees occurred following the 2014 United States Senate elections, where the Republicans gained nine seats and majority control of the chamber. President Obama ultimately nominated 70 individuals for 104 different federal judgeships during this Congress, with 20 confirmations.
With the death of Antonin Scalia in February 2016 in the beginning of a presidential election year, the Republican majority in the Senate made it their stated policy to refuse to consider any nominee to the Supreme Court, arguing that the next president should be the one to appoint Scalia's replacement. President Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the open Supreme Court seat, but the Senate did not consider the nomination.
Main article: Merrick Garland Supreme Court nomination
Following the death of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Antonin Scalia in February 2016, President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill Scalia's seat on the Supreme Court. At the time of his nomination, Garland was the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Scalia's death led to an unusual situation in which a Democratic president had the opportunity to appoint a Supreme Court nominee while the Republicans controlled the United States Senate; before Scalia's death; such a situation last occurred when a Senate Republican majority confirmed Grover Cleveland's nomination of Rufus Wheeler Peckham in 1895. While Garland himself was not personally controversial, Scalia was considered one of the more conservative members of the Supreme Court. Political and legal commentators noted that a more liberal replacement could shift the Court's ideological balance for many years into the future, as the confirmation of Garland would have given Democratic appointees a majority on the Supreme Court for the first time since the Harry Blackmun's confirmation in 1970.
Following Scalia's death, Republican Senate leaders announced that they did not plan to consider any Supreme Court nomination during the president's last year in office, citing the upcoming 2016 United States presidential election. Senate Democrats argued that there was sufficient time to vote on a nominee before the election. Garland's nomination ultimately expired on January 3, 2017, with the end of the 114th Congress. The nomination remained before the Senate for 293 days, the longest such nomination in American history Supreme Court nomination.
On January 31, 2017, President Donald Trump announced his selection of Judge Neil Gorsuch for the open Supreme Court seat. Gorsuch was confirmed on April 7, 2017, by a Republican-majority Senate, 54–45 and sworn in on April 10, 2017.
A 2016 study found that the current rate of federal judicial vacancies (10 percent) had led prosecutors to dismiss more cases and had led defendants to be more likely to plead guilty and less likely to be incarcerated. The authors found that "the current rate of vacancies has resulted in 1,000 fewer prison inmates annually compared to a fully-staffed court system, a 1.5 percent decrease."