Research News

Politics and the changing face of the Supreme and appellate courts

[Media Note: Click here to download a high resolution picture of Tracey George. Vanderbilt has a 24/7 broadcast facility with a dedicated fiber optic line for TV interviews and a radio ISDN line.]

Watch soundbites from Tracy George: Tracey George soundbite on Sotomayor being a “safe” candidate
Tracey George soundbite on Obama’s influence on lower federal courts Tracey George soundbite on justices being “political”
Tracey George soundbite on the best way to choose a Supreme Court nominee

Empirical research from Vanderbilt professor of law and political science Tracey George shows how the United States court system, especially the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, could dramatically change under the Obama Administration.

George believes the Obama administration, like past administrations, will consider both political and policymaking goals in nominating replacement justices to the Supreme Court. She predicted his ideal candidate would be a Latina Democrat who is less than 60 years old, which proved true with Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor.

“The president will want someone who will help strengthen political alliances. The election showed that the Hispanic community and women greatly helped Obama win,” said George.

How smoothly will Obama’s picks go through the nomination process? It depends on the justice being replaced. George said, “the process should not be as grueling as ones we’ve seen in the past because the appointment is unlikely to change the balance of the court.”

But, she said the Harriett Miers’ nomination highlights that the new president must consider the possibility that attacks might come from within his own party rather than from outside of it.

The real power may lie in the lower courts. George’s research found that more than 30,000 cases were decided on the merits by courts of appeals last term as compared to fewer than 80 in the Supreme Court.

“In a real sense, the circuit courts are the court of last resort for most claims and parties,” said George.

There are currently 13 vacancies on the courts of appeals (8 percent of the 167 active judgeships) and an additional 41 vacancies on the district courts (about 6 percent.) While George W. Bush came into office with even more openings to fill (26 court of appeals and 54 district court vacancies), George said the number of openings may quickly rise because the change in party in power may prompt Clinton and Carter appointees to step down soon to ensure a like-minded replacement.

George said the Democratic Congress may increase the number of federal judges, which it has not done in two decades despite repeated pleas from the federal judiciary.

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