The Influence of Partisanship, Ideology, and the Law on Redistricting Decisions in the Federal Courts

By McKenzie, Mark Jonathan | Political Research Quarterly, December 2012 | Go to article overview

The Influence of Partisanship, Ideology, and the Law on Redistricting Decisions in the Federal Courts


McKenzie, Mark Jonathan, Political Research Quarterly


Abstract

Redistricting cases offer a unique opportunity to test the effects of partisan favoritism in judging and to investigate when partisanship might influence decision making distinctly from ideology. How partisan are federal judges? In an analysis of federal district court cases from 1981 to 2007, this study finds that federal judges are neither neutral arbiters nor crass partisans. Instead, judging in redistricting cases can best be described in terms of constrained partisanship. When redistricting law is clear, judges eschew decision making that furthers their party's interests. However, where legal precedent is ambiguous, partisan favoritism exacts a strong influence on judicial behavior.

Keywords

Redistricting; judicial decision making; judicial behavior; federal district courts; partisan favoritism

It's a highly political process, and it's really difficult to take the politics out of it in federal court. . . . My impression is that it's difficult to have politically neutral judgments and standards.

-Federal district judge, commenting on redistricting cases to the author (2006)1

The fight over mid-decade redistricting in Texas received wide publicity across the country. After the political fight ended in 2003, a legal battle ensued in federal court. A three-judge federal district court (Session v. Perry 2004) convened to hear the dispute. With these federal judges cognizant of the attention surrounding the case, the majority opinion began its factual recount of events with this caveat: "We decide only the legality of Plan 1374C, not its wisdom. . . . We know it is rough and tumble politics, and we are ever mindful that the judiciary must call the fouls without participating in the game" (Session v. Perry 2004, 451). At the end of the day, this court's decision split two to one. The two Republican judges, while expressing concern about the legislature's choice of action, believed no foul had been committed by the Republican state legislature. The Democratic federal judge voted to strike down what he saw as an unconstitutional plan. On the surface, the Session v. Perry federal court resembles the partisan actions of a state legislature, but the question remains, is the apparently partisan behavior of this panel an aberration, or is it representative of federal courts' decisions in redistricting?

Previous researchers looking at this subject have characterized federal judges in redistricting in one of two ways: as either neutral arbiters or partisan maximizers. This study brings new evidence to the question concerning the role of partisanship in judicial decision making by utilizing a data set of three-judge federal trial court redistricting cases spanning three decades, from 1981 to 2007. Contrary to previous research, this study indicates that federal judges act as constrained partisans in redistricting. Indeed, partisanship exacts an important influence on judicial behavior in these cases, particularly when legal precedent provides no clear answers. This partisanship manifests itself through federal judges' tendency to strike down redistricting plans drawn up in a process that was controlled by a different political party from that of the reviewing judge. On the other hand, in cases where redistricting law is unambiguous, the law acts as a constraining influence on judges' partisan inclinations.

This study also examines the important question of how partisan influences can operate distinctly from ideological influences in judging. Because of the uniquely partisan nature of redistricting, partisan influences (favoring one's own political party in a court case) are not always congruent with a judge's ideological perceptions of the law. Building on Lloyd's (1995) findings, this study employs a more nuanced measurement of ideology to separate out partisan favoritism from ideology in judging.

The Consequences of Redistricting and Partisan Judging

Investigating the partisan effects of judicial behavior in redistricting is important because of the legal and political implications such an effect would have for democracy. …

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