Political Appointments and Outcomes in Federal District Courts

Joint with Ryan Copus.

2022. Journal of Politics. Volume 84, Number 2, pp. 908-922.

Previous versions of this paper were tiled “The Hidden Effects of Judge Ideology in Federal District Courts” and “The Influence of Judicial Politics in Federal District Courts”

Using an original dataset of around 70,000 civil rights cases heard by nearly 200 judges, we study the effect of presidential appointments to federal district courts. We provide the first causal estimates of whether lawsuits end differently depending on their assignment to either a Democratic or a Republican appointed judge. We show Republican appointees cause fewer settlements and more dismissals, favoring defendants by around 5 percentage points. We estimate a similarly sized effect for a sample of civil rights appeals heard in the Ninth Circuit, raising questions about the conventional wisdom that politics matters more at higher levels of the judicial hierarchy. We also find that the effect in district courts has increased over time. For cases filed during the Obama presidency, Republican appointees caused pro-defendant outcomes in 7.4% more cases than Democratic appointees. Our results suggest that district courts are an important—though neglected—subject of research for political scientists.

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