Book by UMass Amherst Professor Shows How Politics Guides Selection of Federal Judges

October 18, 1997

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AMHERST, Mass. - A new book by University of Massachusetts political science professor Sheldon Goldman offers an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at how nine U.S. presidents shaped the federal judiciary through their selection of lower court judges. Goldman’s book, "Picking Federal Judges: Lower Court Selection From Roosevelt Through Reagan" (Yale University Press), reveals for the first time in great detail factors that affected the selection process. Special attention is given to the struggle to diversify the bench by gender and by race in the period between 1932 and 1988 covered by the book.

Goldman provides detailed accounts of judicial appointments to federal district and appeals courts, arguing overall that presidents use their appointment power to advance their policy as well as partisan and personal agendas. Each administration, he says, faced a different mix of social process was the same. "The basic theme is that judicial selection can be viewed as part of a president’s agenda," Goldman says.

The book shows how both Ronald Reagan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to see the federal judiciary as hindering their policies, and how they set out to reshape it with the judges they picked. "Reagan sought to push the system to the right by appointing conservative judges who would support his social views, while Roosevelt appointed mostly liberal judges who would support his New Deal economic agenda," Goldman says. By contrast, other presidents did not see the courts as vitally affecting their administrations.

Throughout the book, Goldman makes it clear that the appointment process involves navigating through the prerogatives of the Senate, which must approve appointments; the Justice Department, which processes the nominees; party politics, which narrows the pool of likely candidates; and the recommendations of the American Bar Association. He also highlights how some presidents were intimately involved in all aspects of judicial choice, while others delegated most decisions to staff.

Democrat Jimmy Carter, Goldman says, used his power of appointment to further his goals regarding affirmative action, and set a new historical record of numbers of women and African Americans picked for the federal bench. "There was a tremendous breakthrough in the Carter administration," Goldman says. Goldman draws from the papers of nine presidents and from a wide variety of other sources including interviews with some of the participants. He also presents statistical and demographic profiles of each administration’s judicial appointments to show changes in the federal bench.