When Bill Clinton came into office after 24 years of Republican presidential rule (with a brief Carter intermission), a large majority of the federal bench had been appointed by Republicans. It was hoped Clinton could correct that, but after the Republican Revolution in 1994, the GOP employed a strategy of halting Democratic appointments.
Over 60 of Clinton’s nominees were prevented from receiving a hearing, let alone a vote. According to Kevin Drum at the Washington Post:
Originally, after Republicans gained control of the Senate in the 1994 elections and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch assumed control of the Judiciary Committee, the rule regarding judicial nominees was this: If a single senator from a nominee’s home state objected to (or “blue-slipped”) a nomination, it was dead. This rule made it easy for Republicans to obstruct Clinton’s nominees.
Drum notes that this “anonymous holds” tactic–allowing a single senator to obstruct a nomination–“was used extensively by Republicans during the Clinton administration.”
Things got so bad, Hatch even bragged that he chose Clinton’s Supreme Court nominees. According to his autobiography, Clinton called to ask who he’d let through, and Hatch suggested Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsberg for the Supreme Court.
Of course, once George W. Bush took the White House, Hatch and the Republicans removed these impediments to appointment. (Hatch, it should be noted, is now in danger of being ousted by his own party for being too willing to compromise.)
Even with a Democratic Congress, 200 of about 240 nominees put forth by George W. Bush were allowed to be confirmed. Now under Obama, Congress has not confirmed a single nominee in 2012. Of the 23 appointments Obama has made for federal judgeships, three have passed.