Presidential Success through Appointments to the United States District Courts

By Songer, Donald R.; Johnson, Susan W. et al. | Justice System Journal, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Presidential Success through Appointments to the United States District Courts


Songer, Donald R., Johnson, Susan W., Stidham, Ronald, Justice System Journal


While many of the decisions of federal district court judges involve the routine application of settled legal rules, a significant minority of decisions present judges with the opportunity for judicial policymaking. A considerable body of literature suggests that when faced with policymaking opportunities, judges' policy preferences exert a significant impact on the nature of those decisions. The present study explores the extent to which the preferences of appointing presidents are manifested in the policy-relevant decisions of district court judges. In particular, we seek to determine the success of presidents in selecting district court judges compared to recent findings on the success of presidents in selecting justices for the Supreme Court.

In a recent analysis, Segal, Timpone, and Howard argue that presidents clearly use all their available powers in an attempt to influence political outcomes. In particular, they note that "the appointment power allows presidents the opportunity to extend their agenda into a variety of areas that they could not control on their own. . . . judicial appointments can provide policy-minded presidents with an enduring legacy long after their terms are through" (2000:557-58). Segal and his associates then take advantage of some innovative advances in the measurement of presidential preferences to assess the concordance between the preferences of presidents and the policy-relevant decisions of the Supreme Court justices they appoint. Overall, they conclude that presidents "have been fairly successful from a policy standpoint in their Supreme Court appointments" (2000:568-69). In the present study, we seek to extend the analysis of Segal and his associates by examining the corresponding success of presidents in their district court appointments.

The U.S. District Courts represent the basic point of input for the federal judiciary and are the "workhorses" of the federal system (Carp and Stidham, 1998:23). Because 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 and 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 policymaking. A considerable body of literature suggests that when faced with policymaking opportunities, the policy preferences of the judges exert a significant impact on the nature of those decisions (Carp and Rowland, 1983; Rowland and Carp, 1996, 1983; Richardson and Vines, 1970; Peltason, 1955). Consequently, while the stakes may not be as high as they are in Supreme Court appointments, it is reasonable to believe that policy-minded presidents would also be concerned with the policy-relevant decisions of their district judge appointments.

Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom would appear to lead to the expectation that the concordance between the policy preferences of presidents and the voting behavior of judges would be substantially weaker on the federal district courts than on the United States Supreme Court. While this expectation has never been empirically tested, there are two widely held propositions that make it reasonable to expect that presidential preferences will be much less strongly related to judicial votes in the district courts than in the Supreme Court. …

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