Vol. 22:261-276 (Volume publication day May 2019) first published as a review in advancement on January 23, 2019 https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-051317-125141

Richard L. Hasen

The boosted polarization in the unified States amongst the politics branches and citizenry affect the selection, work, perception, and also relative strength of state and federal judges, consisting of justices of the us Supreme Court. Polarization in the United claims over the last couple of decades problem to the American judicial mechanism in in ~ least 4 ways. First, polarization influence judicial selection, even if it is the selection an approach is (sometimes partisan-based) elections or meeting by political actors. In times of higher polarization, governors and also presidents that nominate judges, legislators that confirm judges, and also voters who vote on judicial candidates are an ext apt to support or protest judges top top the basis of partisan affiliation or cues. Second, propelled in component by an option mechanisms, polarization might be reflect in the decisions the judges make, specifically on concerns that divide civilization politically, such as abortion, guns, or affirmative action. The supreme Court, for example, frequently divides along party and ideological present in the many prominent and highly challenged cases. Those ideology system lines currently overlap v party together we get in a duration in which all the Court liberals have been appointed by autonomous presidents and also all the Court conservatives have been appointed by Republican presidents. Third, progressively polarized righteousness decisions show up to be causing the public to watch judges and also judicial decision making (at the very least on the united state Supreme Court) v a much more partisan lens. Fourth, polarization may impact the separation of powers, by empowering courts against polarized legislative branch bodies occasionally paralyzed through gridlock. The review concludes by considering exactly how increased polarization may interact with the judiciary and also judicial branch walk forward and by suggesting areas for future research.

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The enhanced polarization in the joined States among the political branches and citizenry (Barber & McCarty 2015, 2016; Persily 2015), affects the selection, work, perception, and relative strength of state and federal judges, consisting of justices the the us Supreme Court. Judges decide instances rather than pass laws. They are not nakedly politics actors together state legislators are, and also federal judges (and part state judges) have life tenure unless removed from office. Nonetheless, judges do decisions on policy and also politics, and it is naïve to believe that the judiciary and judicial branch have actually been immune to the polarization infecting American politics and society. This article shows that polarization in the United says over the last couple of decades matters to the American judicial device in at least 4 ways.

First, polarization influence judicial selection, whether the selection an approach is (sometimes partisan-based) vote or appointment by political actors. In times of higher polarization, governors and presidents that nominate judges, legislators who confirm judges, and voters that vote on righteousness candidates are more apt to assistance or oppose judges top top the communication of partisan affiliation or cues.

Second, driven in part by choice mechanisms, polarization might be reflected in the decisions that judges make, especially on issues that divide people politically, such together abortion, guns, or affirmative action. The can be fried Court, for example, often divides follow me party and also ideological lines in the many prominent and highly challenged cases. While the Court has long separated along ideology system lines, those lines now overlap with party as we go into a period in which all the Court liberals have actually been appointed by autonomous presidents and all the Court conservatives have actually been appointed through Republican presidents.

Third, significantly polarized justice decisions appear to be resulting in the public to check out judges and also judicial decision making though a much more partisan lens, at least with regard to the us Supreme Court. Those top top the left like the Court much more when it problems liberal decisions, and those top top the right favor the Court much more when it problems conservative ones.

Fourth, polarization may affect the separation that powers. The empowers courts against polarized legislative branch bodies, which periodically cannot act thanks to legislature gridlock.


For commonwealth judicial appointments, from federal district (trial) courts to courts of appeals to the can be fried Court, the chairman nominates candidates who need to be evidenced by a vote of the us Senate. Federal judges have life tenure, uneven impeached by the house of Representatives and also removed by the Senate. This federal design is not the share in the states. American jurisdictions use a variety of judicial choice mechanisms. These incorporate gubernatorial or legislature appointment; partisan or nonpartisan elections; early stage appointment based on a nonpartisan commission"s references to a governor, complied with by a yes-or-no justice retention poll (sometimes described as the Missouri plan); and various hybrid systems. Judges might serve because that a resolved term, till a obligated retirement age, or because that life uneven removed. Over time, some claims have changed their approaches of judicial selection. Number 1 shows transforming methods the judicial selection for picking state can be fried Court judge from 1946 to 2018. The rules differ in some claims for an option of state attempt court and intermediate appellate court judges. This ar considers exactly how the climb of politics polarization in the United claims affects judicial choice for both federal and also state courts.

Figure 1

Federal Courts

Consideration of political party in federal judicial selection is no new. Also in the nineteenth century, presidents supplied the appointment of judges to development their partisan agendas (Gillman 2002). Although some scholars posited that presidents due to the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided Supreme Court judge based in big part on ideology system compatibility with the chairman (Dahl 1957), many other components came right into play, such together patronage and an individual friendships, a tendency that continued until the 1980s (Bartels 2015, p. 175; see likewise Devins & Baum 2017; both works compare durations before and after 1937).

The trend towards presidents choosing an ext ideologically reputable court appointments started with democratic president invoice Clinton, following two surprises under Republican chairman Ronald Reagan. The conservative Reagan appointed perennial “swing” judge Anthony Kennedy and Sandra job O"Connor (Bartels 2015). Reagan decided Kennedy ~ the Senate rejected judge Robert Bork, a more conservative nominee ~ above some crucial issues (Epstein & Segal 2005).

The job of ideological surprised from appointed justices appear to it is in over. Today, presidents ar “near-exclusive focus on ideological compatibility and also reliability” (Bartels 2015, p. 177). Devins & Baum (2017) argue that although both Democratic and Republican presidents have actually increasingly taken ideology into account in the last four decades, there has actually been much more dramatic activity on the Republican side due to the fact that the Reagan administration—the an initial to take into consideration conservative belief the big criterion for selecting nominees. Castle further contend that the Federalist Society, a private organization of conservative and libertarian lawyers, judges, and also activists, has played a central mediating role in the growing and an option of Republican justice nominees (Devins & Baum 2017). This trend has only sped up in the trumped administration. As of November 2017, 17 of chairman Donald Trump"s 18 federal appeals court nominees have connections come the Federalist society (Greenhouse 2017). The Federalist culture has additionally recommended and screened righteousness nominees, consisting of a list of potential supreme Court nominees president Trump announced while still a candidate (Devins & Baum 2017).

Why has actually ideology mattered an ext as polarization has increased? together Sunstein et al. (2006, p. 147) note, “No reasonable human being seriously doubts that ideology, understood as moral and also political commitments of assorted sorts, helps to describe judicial votes. Presidents are entirely conscious of this point, and also their appointment decisions are undertaken with full appreciation of it. Senators are mindful of this allude as well, and throughout American background they have sometimes confirm presidential selections for that reason.”

The Senate"s duty in confirming can be fried Court justices and also lower court judges has adjusted as polarization has actually increased, causing closer ideological scrutiny of can be fried Court nominees (Bartels 2015, Binder & Maltzman 2009). Vice versa, the Senate shown conservative Antonin Scalia by a 98–0 poll in 1986 and also liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg by a 96–3 poll in 1993, conservative Samuel Alito was confirmed by a 58–42 poll in 2005 and also liberal Elena kagan by a 63–37 vote in 2010. Senate democracy cast every one of the votes versus Alito, nominated through a Republican president, and Senate republic cast every one of the votes versus Kagan, nominated by a autonomous president (US Senate 2018). The Court"s newest Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, was confirmed on a 50–48 near-party-line vote; just one democratic senator, Joe Manchin the West Virginia, poll in favor of Kavanaugh"s nomination, and only one Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, did no vote in favor of the (Stolberg 2018).

Ideology has tended come trump patronage and also other political considerations in the meeting of reduced federal appellate court judges also (Scherer 2005). Partisanship has driven a general decrease in the variety of lower court confirmations throughout periods of gridlock and an ext extreme nominees during periods of full one-party regulate (Binder 2008, pp. 115–17, 122–24). Together polarization among senators has increased, so has actually the ideology system polarization that nominees and the soot of organized interest group involvement (Cameron et al. 2013). Public opinion of supreme Court nominees in each senator"s home state correlates through the likelihood the the senator will certainly vote in favor of the nomination (Kastellac et al. 2010), and interest teams now use public relations campaigns to drum up public support or opposition come judicial nominees.

Until recently, senators might filibuster justice nominees, an interpretation that in a polarized and also divided Senate, obtaining 60 votes to relocate judicial nominations forward ended up being a challenge. The preferences of the median senator the the bulk party and also the minority party"s usage of the filibuster mattered a an excellent deal because that confirmation of commonwealth judges (Binder & Maltzman 2013, Primo et al. 2008, Rohde & Shepsle 2007, Wittes 2006).

Senators have long supplied delaying tactics and the filibuster to block judicial nominations (Bell 2002). However delaying strategies markedly raised as the Senate became an ext ideologically polarized. Many trace polarization that the judicial confirmation process to president Reagan"s failed supreme Court nomination the Robert Bork. Epstein & Segal (2005) find that the Bork nomination did have a polarizing effect but that the current duration of politicization originated in the 1960s.

Polarization obtained worse throughout the presidency that Republican George W. Bush in 2000–2008 (Binder & Maltzman 2009) and even more dramatically in 2009–2018 throughout the presidencies that Democrat Barack Obama (Binder & Maltzman 2013) and also Republican Donald Trump. The Obama years experienced Democrats, climate in regulate of the Senate, end the filibuster for non–Supreme Court righteousness nominations (dubbed by some the “nuclear option”). Then, after republicans retook manage of the Senate, the Senate refuse to schedule a hear or poll on chairman Obama"s an option of moderate judge Merrick Garland to change Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away in office.

At the start of the trump card administration, the Republican Senate got rid of the filibuster for supreme Court nominations, and also the Senate shown President Trump"s an option of Neil Gorsuch to success Scalia mostly along party lines: 3 Democrats from states won by trumped voted because that Gorsuch through the rest opposed, and no republicans voted against him (US Senate 2018). Gorsuch came through a Federalist culture pedigree as a difficult conservative, and also he is not intended to it is in a middle or totter justice. The newest Justice, Kavanaugh, has the very same pedigree and also was confirmed on a closer vote.

For lower court appellate nominees, the Republican Senate has begun ignoring the “blue slip,” a Senate procedure that permitted home-state senators come block righteousness nominations come which castle objected (Binder 2007, Quinn 2018). There room increasingly few mechanisms a decimal party deserve to use come block justice appointments once the presidency and also the Senate are regulated by the exact same party.

With unified manage then, we deserve to expect a president to nominate and also the Senate come confirm significantly ideologically strong candidates in near-party-line votes. When there is split party control in between the president and the Senate majority, we deserve to expect polarization to cause deadlock, together the clogged Garland nomination demonstrates.

State Courts

For a lengthy period, state judicial elections were mostly sleepy affairs, and also in part jurisdictions they continue to be so, v low turnout and voters casting votes (or abstaining in justice races) with tiny knowledge the the justice candidates. In various other jurisdictions, however, polarization and also loosening that judicial campaign rules through the united state Supreme Court applying first Amendment doctrine to judicial projects have made some judicial vote resemble more traditional projects (Gibson 2008, Hojnacki & Baum 1992). Righteousness election projects in some places ended up being “nastier, noisier, and costlier” (Schotland 2007, p. 1081).

Kritzer (2015) presents the most substantial recent study of the duty of partisanship in elections for state supreme Court justices. That finds the voters rely on party cues in judicial elections, and these cues matter most when state courts have actually taken on concerns that polarize voters, such together abortion, same-sex marriage, and also the death penalty. In this states, such together Wisconsin, partisan voting because that state can be fried Court justices tracks partisan voting for the state"s governor. In claims where these issues have no made it to the supreme Court, there is much less polarization. Kritzer likewise attributes the increase of assault ads in judicial election projects to raising political polarization overall.

Kritzer (2015) finds strong undercurrents that partisanship even in part nonpartisan retention elections, and also other research study confirms that partisan national politics plays a role in nonpartisan judicial elections (Rock & Baum 2010, Streb 2009). Parties straight voters exactly how to vote through advertising and campaigning therefore that reputable partisan judges might be chosen even lacking a party cue on the ballot. But the lack of clearly partisan info may reduced turnout even though nonpartisan vote “still have a strong partisan or ideology system element among those that participate” (Bonneau & Cann 2015, p. 102).

Polarization also sometimes matters because that judicial appointments. In some claims using the so-called Missouri plan for gubernatorial appointment of judges native a perform of potential nominees produced by a nonpartisan commission, conservative and also business teams have propelled to eliminate the commission"s duty in appointment, in order to giving an ext power come governors and legislatures to do political appointments (Kritzer 2015, p. 255). More generally, Bonica & Sen (2017, p. 587) discover that “election systems that count on merit rose or nonpartisan elections exhibit lower levels of ideologically based justice selection…than either gubernatorial or legislative systems or partisan elections. Among other conclusions, this says that the decision to selected or choose judges is far less consequential 보다 the rules that govern the two approaches.”


Political polarization affect not only judicial selection but judicial decision making together well. Judges commonly have good discretion to decide legal questions, consciously or subconsciously, in line v their policy preferences. If judges are preferred in part for ideological factors in a polarized choice process, judges" decisions can be meant to reflect their ideology. Indeed, politics party has actually traditionally been taken into consideration a an excellent proxy for ideological background of judges (Pinello 1999); today, party plays a greater duty than ever before in the selection of judges and provides a far better signal of ideology system orientation 보다 it has in generations. Still, the is vital not to simply conflate party and ideology in every cases, together they periodically differ (D"Elia-Kueper & Segal 2017).

Students the judicial national politics offer two main models for explaining justice behavior, especially amongst judges at higher appellate levels, such together the united state Supreme Court. One model, the attitudinal version (Segal & Spaeth 2002), conceives of judges as deciding cases in line v their preferences. The other model, the strategic model (sometimes described as the rational selection model), views judges as rational actors seeking to vote their preferences as constrained by institutional factors, such as the preferences of other judges on multimember courts or of other political actors, such together Congress, the president, and federal agencies, i m sorry will have a function in responding come or implementing judicial order (Anderson & Tahk 2007, Bailey 2007, Gooch 2015, Harvey & Friedman 2006). One of two people way, a judge"s preferences issue to judicial decision making. Reduced court judges, who must follow precedent from appellate decisions, frequently are an ext constrained. If castle deviate indigenous precedent, they risk having actually their decision reversed.

One factor why court (especially appellate courts) are polarizing in decision making may be that ideological litigants from the left and right carry disputes end hot-button concerns such together gay rights, abortion, immigration, and gun rights to the state and also federal courts. “On both political parties of the politics spectrum, advocates routinely call on judges come block new and unwanted policy changes, come dismantle existing policies to which lock object, and also to facilitate initiatives to readjust policy legislatively” (Keck 2014, p. 11). Even though the judiciary is polarized by such cases, judges in situations raising controversial issues are less polarized than legislators considering similar issues (Keck 2014).

United says Supreme Court

Scholars examining ideology and also polarization in judicial decision making have actually paid the many attention, through far, to the united state Supreme Court. Research studies of can be fried Court decision making generally rely on either or both of two procedures of justice ideology: a static Segal–Cover score the liberal to conservative ideology based on assessments of supreme Court nominees included in specific newspaper editorials (Segal & cover 1989), and a dynamic Martin–Quinn justice common space (JCS) score based upon the coding that justices" votes when they room on the supreme Court (Epstein et al. 2007, young name & Quinn 2002). Both actions have benefits and disadvantages: Segal–Cover is exogenously derived yet static; JCS scores adjust as justices change over time however raise problems of endogeneity (Bailey 2007; Gooch 2015, pp. 1006–7).

Today no one doubts that the supreme Court is growing more polarized in that is decision making. The Court has actually long been separated into two ideological camps, liberal and also conservative, in a bimodal distribution with a center fluctuating in size. When the Court long has actually been polarized ~ above the basis of ideological background , it offered to boast a bigger center and fewer justices at the poles. Ideological polarization has increased in the last 50 year (Gooch 2015). Supreme Court polarization is reflected in dental argument, where justices are an ext likely to act as proponents for their details side quite than neutral questioners. Jacobi & sag (2019) map the rise of judge as proponents to 1995, the period of better congressional polarization.

For the past couple of decades and also until recently, the Court featured four generally conservative justices, many appointed by Republican presidents; four generally free justices, most appointed by democratic presidents; and also swing righteousness Anthony Kennedy, who often sided with conservatives however sometimes sided through liberals on concerns such together same-sex marital relationship (Bartels 2015, p. 172; Devins & Baum 2017; Hasen 2016). Various other swing justices preceded Justice Kennedy, such together Justice O"Connor. Unsurprisingly then, the many salient supreme Court situation outcomes that the Rehnquist and also Roberts court (through 2012) to be pretty evenly split by ideology, v the skinny slightly much more liberal (52%) 보다 conservative (48%) (Bartels 2015, p. 191).

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Moreover, prior to the early 2000s, justices" positions on concerns were no easily associated with the see of the party that the nominating chairman (Bartels 2015). Gone room justices appointed by autonomous presidents who occasionally voted conservatively (Kennedy-appointed justice Byron White voted against abortion rights) and also justices appointed by Republican presidents who occasionally voted liberally (Ford-appointed Justice man Paul Stevens voted in favor of abortion rights) (Bartels 2015, Devins & Baum 2017). Today, each justice"s belief is far better defined and aligned with the political party the the appointing president. Justices are more likely to be ideologically in line v the understanding of their nominating president"s party and also less likely to drift ideologically (or “evolve”).

Bartels (2015) note a “polarization paradox” through which the percentage of 5–4 (or other one-vote margin) can be fried Court decisions has been increasing at the same time that the percentage of unanimous opinions is increasing. Figure 2 shows both that these rises from 1971 come 2016 (Epstein et al. 2015, Washington University regulation 2017). Note the sharp drop-off in one-margin decisions and sharp climb of unanimous decisions following the 2016 death of justice Scalia, a temporary period of a 4–4 evenly split partisan can be fried Court.