Prioritizing Judicial Nominations after Presidential Transitions

February 11, 2020 - Jonathan M. King, Ian Ostrander

MSU Political Science PhD student Jonathan M. King and Dr. Ian Ostrander have published their latest research examining district court judicial vacancies from 1981-2019 in Presidential Studies Quarterly. They found that presidents prioritize districts with multiple vacancies or that have favorable political conditions.

"Further, we find nominees from politically unfavorable districts, if nominated, are significantly delayed. In all, presidents tend to prioritze necessity and expediency in their inherited judicial position," wrote King.


New presidents now commonly inherit a backlog of judicial vacancies. Lifetime judicial appointments provide presidents with lasting policy influence, but time and energy are rarely more valuable than after transitions while the selection and vetting of new judicial nominations are costly. Attempting to alter the ideological character of the courts could yield opposition that further increases the cost of each nomination. How then do new presidents prioritize vacancies? We use a unique data set of all district court vacancies that exist at the start of a new presidency to investigate. We find significant variation in the time to nominate within administrations and that presidents tend to prioritize necessity and expediency when filling transition vacancies.

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