Monday, February 22, 2021

Trump's "Liberal"* Eighth Circuit Appointees

As many of you know, I did my clerkship on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, for the late Judge Diana E. Murphy. It was a fantastic experience. It was also an eye-opening experience, not least because the Eighth Circuit is by far the most conservative court in the country. How conservative is it? I think there's a plausible case to be made that Donald Trump's appointees to the court were to the left of the median active judge on the circuit at the start of his administration.

The active judges at the start of Trump's administration, ordered from most liberal to most conservative (this is my somewhat arbitrary ranking), were:

Kelly, Smith, Shepherd, Wollman, Benton, Loken, Riley, Colloton, Gruender

The ideologically median judge would be Duane Benton. I've italicized the two judges that went senior during Trump's term; he also got two more appointments from judges (Bye and Murphy) who went senior at the tail end of the Obama administration but whose seats were still empty at the start of Trump's term.

Now let's order the current judges (italicizing Trump's appointees):

Kelly, Smith, Grasz, Shepherd, Kobes, Erickson, Benton, Loken, Straus, Colloton, Gruender

Three of four appointees are to Benton's left; the new median is Judge Ralph Erickson. Now, again, there's some amount of arbitrariness to this; I wouldn't read too much into the precise order (e.g., if one flipped Kobes and Erickson I'd hardly have any basis for objecting). Moreover, judges of course can be "liberal" on some dimensions but not on others (Smith, for example, is exceptionally conservative on issues like abortion but is more liberal on issues of discrimination and qualified immunity). And to be clear -- none of these judges (excepting Kelly, the sole Democratic appointee) are liberal under any objective standard. 

But even with all those caveats, there's a decent case to be made that the Eighth Circuit was so outrageously rightward slanted that Trump actually managed to slightly shift the court to the left. That's amazing.

1 comment:

Benjamin Lewis said...

The multidimensionality is interesting. If you ranked them separately on a bunch of issue axes, do you expect that the median on each/most issues would end up more liberal than at the start? Did they triangulate on 1 or a few particularly key issues - possibly lodestone issues like gerrymandering and voting rights?