Obama’s judicial appointments: liberal, but not that liberal

The debate about Obama’s judicial appointments — which includes not just predictable conservative opposition but disappointed liberals too — now has some better data:

What is the ideological direction of the judges appointed by President Barack Obama during his first five years in office?  To answer this question we analyzed 683 U.S. district court decisions handed down by judges appointed to the trial court bench by President Obama.  These decisions were studied along with over 106,000 opinions by over 2,300 judges published in the Federal Supplement from 1932 through 2013.  We find that while the Obama cohort is more liberal than the appointees of recent GOP presidents, they are not as liberal overall as some critics have at times suggested.  Overall, the Obama judges are somewhat more liberal than the Clinton judges but slightly less liberal than the Carter and Johnson jurists.  The Obama judges are effectively deciding cases as we might expect from mainstream Democrats.

This is from a new paper by political scientists Robert Carp and Kenneth Manning.  They examined each of these opinions to capture whether it was in the liberal direction or conservative direction.  For example, they argue, a liberal decision would tend to expand civil rights or civil liberties, uphold government intervention in the economy, and side with criminal defendants arguing against police overreach.  Here is the percent of decisions by district court judges that were liberal, broken down by the president who appointed those judges.


This portrait of Obama’s district court appointments squares with some other measures of Obama’s ideology versus recent presidents — notably those developed by the political scientist Keith Poole.  He also finds that Obama, while more liberal than recent Republican presidents, is not really more liberal than recent Democratic presidents.


Carp and Manning conclude:

Overall, the data suggest that Obama’s judges are not shaping up to be for the left what the George W. Bush judges were for the right. The jurists appointed by W. Bush were among the  most conservative since 1932. One cannot make a similar claim about the ideological  disposition of Obama’s judges on the left side of the political spectrum. Yes, the Obama  appointees are liberal, but they are not setting a new ideological record. As such, the judges  appointed by President Obama are well within the mainstream of American political ideology.  As Obama serves out the remainder of his second term and fills more vacancies on the federal  bench, there is every reason to believe that this trend will continue.

John Sides is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He specializes in public opinion, voting, and American elections.

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