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Republican-Appointed Federal Judges Sentence Blacks More Harshly, Women More Leniently

by Ed Lyon 

Under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, presidents nominate judges to sit on federal district and circuit courts, as well as the Supreme Court. Federal judges are appointed for life and serve until they retire, resign, die or are impeached. Politicians (including presidents) have historically been affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican party, and usually endorse their party’s platforms – though the idea behind lifetime judicial appointments was to give independence to judges to rule fairly and equitably in all cases without undue political pressure. 

Harvard Law School professors Alma Cohen and Crystal Yang recently completed and released the results of an exhaustive study that examined sentencing records of 1,400 federal judges covering more than 500,000 cases from 1999 through 2015. Their resulting report was published in February 2019 in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.

For longtime PLN readers, it will come as no surprise to learn that regardless of a judge’s political affiliation, black defendants tend to receive longer sentences than defendants of other races. Interestingly, however, the study found that judges appointed by Republican presidents sentence black defendants to prison terms averaging around 90 days longer than judges appointed by Democrats.

“The racial gap by political affiliation is three months, approximately 65 percent of the baseline racial sentence gap,” according to Yang and Cohen. “We also find that Republican-appointed judges give female defendants two months less in prison than similar male defendants compared to Democratic-appointed judges, 17 percent of the baseline gender sentence gap.”

“Conservative judges are more likely to feel that, if a woman committed a crime, it must not have been her idea or she might have been forced to do it by circumstances,” Cohen opined. “A key takeaway is that our system of judicial appointments has deep and broad effects on judicial decisions,” he added. “Subsequent discussions of sentencing decisions and racial and gender disparity should pay close attention to the role of political leanings.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, nominated by President Trump, disagrees with such politically aligned statements. “There is no such thing as a Republican judge or a Democratic judge. We just have judges in this country,” he said during his 2017 confirmation hearing.

Yet a March 2018 tweet from President Trump indicated otherwise: “We need more Republicans [appointed to judgeships] in 2018 and must ALWAYS hold the Supreme Court!” 



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