Politics and Judgment in Federal District Courts

C. K. Rowland and Robert A. Carp

Are appointment politics and court decisions linked? Do presidents use judicial appointments to shape their policy agendas? C. K. Rowland and Robert Carp provide definitive answers to these questions and, in the process, provide a new paradigm for the study of federal jurisprudence.

As the authors remind us, since the Judiciary Act of 1789, federal trial judges have been politically appointed, a process frequently the object of partisan scorn. Marshall's famous Marbury v. Madison case was triggered by the highly politicized appointment of William Marbury. FDR tried to protect his New Deal programs by choosing judges sympathetic to his political philosophy. Nixon and Carter were accused of nominating judges on the basis of ideological "litmus tests." And Reagan attracted relentless criticism to his own district-court appointments.

“A major empirical and theoretical work that has the potential for becoming a classic in the field.”

—Sheldon Goldman, author of The Federal Courts as a Political System and Judicial Conflict and Consensus

“Rowland and Carp have exceptional records as scholars of the lower federal courts. This book should only enhance that reputation. Anyone interested in the judicial process will find it a welcome addition.”

—Thomas G. Walker, author of A Court Divided: The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Politics of Judicial Reform

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From Woodrow Wilson to George Bush, Rowland and Carp examine the voting patterns of these presidentially appointed trial judges. Working from attorney interviews and more than 45,000 court rulings from 1933 to 1988-the largest and most current database available-they document the undeniable link between politics and jurisprudence in the federal lower courts.

Rejecting the outmoded and reductionist attitudinal (or behavioral) model for a new one based on cognitive psychology, the authors argue that federal trial judges' decisions do not automatically reflect the policies and ideologies of that judge's presidential appointer. They show, instead, that ideology influences but does not predetermine or control judicial decision-making. They demonstrate further that, while the attitudinal model can help us understand judicial behavior at the appellate and Supreme Court level, it's simply incompatible with fact-finding, the primary duty of trial judges.

In an era of expanding power and influence for federal trial judges, declining faith in our legal system, and increasingly divisive partisan politics the federal judiciary and its appointed judges will remain the focus of intense public scrutiny. This book shows us just how such analysis should be conducted.

About the Author

C. K. Rowland and Robert A. Carp, leading scholars of the judicary, are coauthors of the highly praised Policymaking and Politics in the Federal District Courts. Rowland is professor of political science at the University of Kansas. Carp is professor of political science and associate dean of the College of Social Sciences at the University of Houston.