New Study Reveals Surprising Influence of Party Affiliation on Judicial Outcomes

Washington, D.C. – The debate over whether the media should identify the president who appointed federal judges has gained attention recently. Critics argue that highlighting the president’s association with judges perpetuates the belief that courts are just extensions of political parties. However, a new study by a Harvard Law School professor suggests that party affiliation does play a significant role in judicial outcomes.

The study, conducted by Alma Cohen, examined 630,000 federal appeals court cases from 1985 to 2020. Cohen found that party affiliation had a far-reaching impact on decisions, beyond just controversial issues like gun control or abortion. She concluded that judges appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents consistently differed in their tendency to side with the weaker party.

Cohen’s research revealed that panels with more Democratic judges were more likely to make decisions favoring individuals in civil litigation against institutions like corporations or the government. The same pattern emerged in criminal appeals, immigration appeals, and prisoner litigation. In fact, an all-Democratic panel was twice as likely to rule in favor of immigrants in immigration cases as an all-Republican panel.

Critics of previous studies that examined the partisan differences among judges argued that unpublished decisions were not taken into account. However, Cohen’s work showed similar partisan effects among both published and unpublished decisions, as well as unanimous and divided panels.

The study also found that the impact of a panel composed of nominees from both parties was not symmetrical. A lone Republican judge on a panel with two Democratic judges had a stronger moderating effect on the majority than a lone Democrat on a panel with two Republican judges. Additionally, Democratic appointees were more inclined to reverse lower-court rulings than their Republican counterparts.

The real-world implications of these findings are significant. Cohen estimated that if Al Gore had become president in 2000 instead of George W. Bush, a two-term Gore presidency would have changed the outcome in approximately 10,000 cases over 20 years. These changes would have resulted in thousands of improved outcomes for individuals in civil litigation, private parties in civil suits against the government, criminal defendants in appeals, immigrants in immigration appeals, and prisoners in litigation.

The study highlights the importance of paying attention to the composition of the courts, not only the Supreme Court but also the lower courts. The president’s appointment of judges can have a profound impact on judicial outcomes. While it may be ideal for judges to be impartial, party affiliation appears to influence their decisions.