The Gatekeepers: Federal District Courts in the Political Process

By Kevin L. Lyles | Go to book overview
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8 Does Race Make a Difference?: Perceptions and Attitudes of African- American, Latino, and White District Court Judges

For most . . . in America, regardless of status, political persuasion, or accomplishments, the moment never arrives when race can be treated as a total irrelevancy. 1


The previous chapters have examined the institutional role and function of the federal district courts in the political process. These analyses have also explored the contextual dynamics of the selection and confirmation processes. This chapter argues that these judges might also be viewed as "gatekeepers" of different colors. Indeed, data generated in the National District Court Judge Survey (NDJS) offer strong support that there are significant differences in how African-American, white, and Latino 2 judges view their individual and institutional role and functions in the policy process. In other words, who sits on these courts may in large measure determine what groups and interests are represented.

The NDJS is an especially useful tool in assessing differences between judges from different racial backgrounds and supplements the limited data generated in the SDCC analysis. That is, because of the relatively few significant cases written by African-American or Latino judges, in part due to the recentness of many of their appointments (especially prior to President Clinton; see Figure 8.1), the significant case methodology used in the previous chapter yields sparse results (See Appendix B, Part II). For example, between 1960 and 1996, African- American judges wrote only 2.2 percent (twenty) of the total (699) significant opinions rendered across the five policy areas. Latino judges rendered only four of these 699 significant opinions. 3

Clearly, given the limited data base, one must be careful not to extrapolate the findings on twenty significant opinions to the overall population of African- American judges. Nonetheless, several tentative conclusions may be drawn from


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The Gatekeepers: Federal District Courts in the Political Process
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