Three factors account for this remarkable success on federal appellate judges. First, the conservative legal movement has grown significantly over the past two decades. In 2001, the George W. Bush White House would have had to search long and hard to find highly credentialed judicial conservatives for some vacancies. Sixteen years later, the pipeline is bursting with superb candidates whose legal training, whether in law school or on the job, has been deeply influenced by Justices Scalia and Thomas and by the Federalist Society. Indeed, two federal appellate nominations in Texas were delayed for months not by the inability to find suitable candidates but by the challenge of deciding among so many.
Second, thank Harry Reid. In November 2013, the Democratic majority leader pushed to repeal the filibuster for lower-court (and executive-branch) nominees. His success meant that a steadfast minority of 41 or more senators could no longer block a judicial nomination. So, when the president and the Senate are of the same party, the path to confirmation can be fairly certain and quick. Further, that promise of a smooth path encouraged high-quality conservatives — the very folks who might reasonably have feared a filibuster and been most reluctant to put their careers in indefinite limbo — to offer themselves as candidates. With the filibuster abolished, the time from nomination to confirmation for the twelve federal appellate judges ranged from two to six months.
Third, federal appellate nominations mattered deeply to the key players.