Magazine article Chicago Policy Review (Online)

Political Donations Indicate That Federal Court Clerks Skew Left

Magazine article Chicago Policy Review (Online)

Political Donations Indicate That Federal Court Clerks Skew Left

Article excerpt

Republicans refused to hold hearings on President Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, and now Democrats are threatening to do the same for President Trump’s nominee, Neil Gorsuch. This gridlock is just one example of how all three branches of the U.S. federal government have become politicized. But what if evidence demonstrates that political bias existed in the judicial branch long before the current era of polarization?

Prior research has documented polarization among judges. However, “The Political Ideologies of Law Clerks and Their Judges,” a recent study from the University of Chicago Law School, suggests that such politicization may extend to court clerks. Using a combination of data from the Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court Information Office, and a dataset compiled in 2010, the researchers analyze the political donations of court clerks from across the federal judicial system since 1960. Through cross-referencing the data, they match the identity and ideology of 7,969 clerks. The data is particularly relevant as over 40 percent of U.S. lawyers make political contributions (as opposed to five percent of the general population), which the authors find is closely correlated with where clerks receive their law degrees.

Utilizing an ideological measure based on political contributions called CFscores, the researchers place individuals on a scale from -2 to +2, the former being extremely liberal and the latter being extremely conservative. For reference, Barack Obama scores a -1.65, Hillary Clinton a -1.16, Chris Christie a 0.46 and Scott Walker a 1.28. The authors recognize that CFscores are limited as some individuals may donate strategically and others may not donate at all; however, the measure has been shown to correlate strongly with other measures of court bias, where such data is available.

The authors find that 75 percent of clerks score below zero, meaning they are disproportionately liberal. Even though the distribution of the data is bimodal, which indicates that there are a significant number of conservative clerks, the mean ideology of a clerk is about the same as Bill Clinton (-0.68).

*Ideological score is a CFScore. …

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