How the partial death of the filibuster will shape the federal courts

January 29

Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on the Senate floor on Nov. 21, 2013, before detonating the nuclear option. (Screenshot from C-Span2)

Senate Democrats’ “nuclear” move this past fall made it easier for a simple majority to end filibusters of nominations for vacancies on the federal bench (excepting Supreme Court nominees).  Will the partial demise of the filibuster affect the ideological bent of the federal courts? Democrats’ reinterpretation of the Senate cloture rule, after all, left in place committee practices such as the “blue slip” that allow home state senators to stall nominees they oppose.  In a newly published piece in Legislative Studies QuarterlyJed Stiglitz explores the impact of Senate rules and practices on the ideology of federal judges and provides a counterfactual prediction of  judicial ideologies had the filibuster not existed in the recent past.  Jed summarizes his research below.  The full article is available, ungated, here.

The recent (partial) demise of the filibuster with respect to judicial appointments raises a recurring question: what role does the Senate play in shaping the ideological composition of the judiciary?  Over the years, scholars have argued for the primacy of various Senate institutions in the body’s influence over judicial appointments: an informal norm granting home-state senators a say in selecting nominees (the blue slip process), the majority party, and of course the filibuster. Using a novel dataset, this article first studies which of these Senate institutions is most important in shaping appointment politics. Are blue slips a quaint senatorial courtesy without much influence — or a key to understanding the confirmation process? What of the filibuster? Consistent with the ragged nature of the debate over the filibuster, I find that much of the Senate’s influence can be understood as a function of that single, high-stakes institution. Second, I consider how losing the filibuster is likely to influence the ideological composition of the judiciary. Using a straightforward simulation, I find that, had the filibuster not existed in the recent past, the distribution of judges on theU.S. Courts of Appeals would be bimodal, much along the lines of the distribution of lawmakers in the Senate.  Even if removing the filibuster allows for faster confirmations, it probably also opens to the door to an increasingly polarized judiciary, with difficult-to-predict consequences for constitutional law, practices of statutory interpretation, and judicial decision-making more broadly.

Here is a sneak preview of the simulation results.  The counterfactual exercise is suggestive of the potential impact of the Senate’s nuclear move.  Details in the article.

Figure by Jed Stiglitz
Figure by Jed Stiglitz
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