The Influence of Partisanship, Ideology, and the Law on Redistricting Decisions in the Federal Courts

Published date01 December 2012
Date01 December 2012
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
65(4) 799 –813
© 2012 University of Utah
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912911421012
012McKenziePolitical Research Quarterly
1Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Mark Jonathan McKenzie, Department of Political Science, Texas
Tech University, Mail Stop 1015, Lubbock, TX 79409
The Influence of Partisanship,
Ideology, and the Law on Redistricting
Decisions in the Federal Courts
Mark Jonathan McKenzie1
Redistricting cases offer a unique opportunity to test the effects of partisan favoritism in judging and to investigate when
partisanship might influence decision making distinctly from ideology. How partisan are federal judges? In an analysis
of federal district court cases from 1981 to 2007, this study finds that federal judges are neither neutral arbiters nor
crass partisans. Instead, judging in redistricting cases can best be described in terms of constrained partisanship. When
redistricting law is clear, judges eschew decision making that furthers their party’s interests. However, where legal
precedent is ambiguous, partisan favoritism exacts a strong influence on judicial behavior.
Redistricting; judicial decision making; judicial behavior; federal district courts; partisan favoritism
It’s a highly political process, and it’s really difficult to
take the politics out of it in federal court. . . . My impres-
sion is that it’s difficult to have politically neutral judg-
ments and standards.
—Federal district judge, commenting on
redistricting cases to the author (2006)1
The fight over mid-decade redistricting in Texas
received wide publicity across the country. After the
political fight ended in 2003, a legal battle ensued in fed-
eral court. A three-judge federal district court (Session v.
Perry 2004) convened to hear the dispute. With these fed-
eral judges cognizant of the attention surrounding the
case, the majority opinion began its factual recount of
events with this caveat: “We decide only the legality of
Plan 1374C, not its wisdom. . . . We know it is rough and
tumble politics, and we are ever mindful that the judiciary
must call the fouls without participating in the game”
(Session v. Perry 2004, 451). At the end of the day, this
court’s decision split two to one. The two Republican
judges, while expressing concern about the legislature’s
choice of action, believed no foul had been committed by
the Republican state legislature. The Democratic federal
judge voted to strike down what he saw as an unconstitu-
tional plan. On the surface, the Session v. Perry federal
court resembles the partisan actions of a state legislature,
but the question remains, is the apparently partisan
behavior of this panel an aberration, or is it representative
of federal courts’ decisions in redistricting?
Previous researchers looking at this subject have char-
acterized federal judges in redistricting in one of two
ways: as either neutral arbiters or partisan maximizers.
This study brings new evidence to the question concern-
ing the role of partisanship in judicial decision making by
utilizing a data set of three-judge federal trial court redis-
tricting cases spanning three decades, from 1981 to 2007.
Contrary to previous research, this study indicates that
federal judges act as constrained partisans in redistrict-
ing. Indeed, partisanship exacts an important influence on
judicial behavior in these cases, particularly when legal
precedent provides no clear answers. This partisanship
manifests itself through federal judges’ tendency to strike
down redistricting plans drawn up in a process that was
controlled by a different political party from that of the
reviewing judge. On the other hand, in cases where redis-
tricting law is unambiguous, the law acts as a constrain-
ing influence on judges’ partisan inclinations.
This study also examines the important question of
how partisan influences can operate distinctly from ideo-
logical influences in judging. Because of the uniquely
partisan nature of redistricting, partisan influences (favor-
ing one’s own political party in a court case) are not

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT