Academic journal article Law & Society Review

The Influence of Presidential versus Home State Senatorial Preferences on the Policy Output of Judges on the United States District Courts

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

The Influence of Presidential versus Home State Senatorial Preferences on the Policy Output of Judges on the United States District Courts

Article excerpt

While many of the decisions of federal district court judges involve the routine application of settled legal rules, a significant minority of their decisions present the judges with the opportunity to engage in judicial policy making. A considerable body of literature suggests that when faced with policy-making opportunities, the policy preferences of the judges exert a significant impact on the nature of those decisions. The present study explores the question of whose preferences are manifested in the policy-relevant decisions of the district court judges. In particular, we seek to determine the relative impact of the preferences of the major elites involved in the selection of federal district judges: the appointing president, home state senators of the president's party, and home state elites outside the Senate who are consulted when a president makes an appointment from a state whose Senate delegation is in the hands of the opposition party. The analysis is based on all published decisions of the district courts in civil liberties, economic and labor, and criminal procedure cases decided between 1961 and 1995. We find that contrary to the expectations derived from the existing literature on district judge appointments, the political preferences of the appointing presidents are most closely related to the policy relevant decisions of the judges.

Introduction

The U.S. district courts represent the basic point of input for the federal judiciary and are the "workhorses" of the federal system (Carp & Stidham 1998:23). Since the vast majority of their decisions are not appealed, district judges often have the last say about most of the legal issues resolved in federal court. Those decisions increasingly extend to a host of new issues with controversial political implications: the availability of abortions, standards for defining obscenity, the quality of the air we breathe, requirements for affirmative action programs, standards for the maintenance of prisons, what plea bargains would be accepted in political corruption investigations like Watergate, and the admissibility of evidence from searches and confessions in high-profile criminal prosecutions (Goulden 1974; Rowland & Carp 1996). While many of their decisions involve the routine application of settled legal rules, a significant minority of their decisions, especially those published in the Federal Supplement, present the judges with the opportunity to engage in judicial policy making. A considerable body of literature suggests that when judges are faced with policy-making opportunities, their policy preferences exert a significant impact on the nature of those decisions (Carp & Rowland 1983; Rowland & Carp 1996; Richardson & Vines 1970; Rowland & Carp 1983; Peltason 1955).

The present study explores the question of whose preferences are manifested in the policy-relevant decisions of the district court judges. In particular, we seek to determine the relative impact of the preferences of the major elites involved in the selection of federal district judges: the appointing president, home state senators of the president's party, and home state elites outside the Senate who are consulted when a president makes an appointment from a state whose Senate delegation is in the hands of the opposition party.

The Appointment of District Court Judges

"In form, the appointment of federal judges could not be simpler: they are nominated by the President and affirmed by majority vote of the Senate" (Richardson & Vines 1970:58). In practice, however, more actors are involved than just the president and the Senate sitting as a collective body, and the politics of the process varies in significant ways for judges nominated to different courts. Examinations of the politics of judicial selection have concluded that even at the bottom of the judicial hierarchy where local political forces have their greatest impact, the president is a key player (Carp & Stidham 1998; Goldman 1997; Richardson & Vines 1970; Rowland & Carp 1996). …

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