The Hidden Effects of Judge Ideology in Federal District Courts

Joint with Ryan Copus.

In contrast to robust findings of partisan decision-making by federal appellate judges, researchers have frequently found that judges’ partisanship does not substantially shape outcomes in district courts. Why? We use a newly constructed dataset of all civil rights cases in seven courts between 1995 and 2016 to demonstrate that partisan effects are largely hidden. First, we find modest partisan effects in our entire dataset, but they are largely buried in litigant-driven outcomes, such as settlements. We argue that prior research may not have detected these effects because of the common, but incorrect, practice of dropping settled cases. Second, we find large partisan effects in some subsets of cases, but they are hidden by a large number of potentially “frivolous” cases with small partisan effects. By figuring out why partisanship appears to matter so little in district courts, we paradoxically demonstrate that it actually matters a lot.

Selected Presentations: SPSA Conference (January 2019, Austin TX) and Conference on Institutions and Law-Making (March 2019, Emory University), APSA Conference (August 2019, Washington DC)