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A Reagan judge, a Clinton judge, a Bush judge: Does it really matter?

When a federal district judge in Michigan ruled recently that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violated the Constitution, the New York Times noted that the judge, Bernard A. Friedman, had been appointed by President Reagan. That detail wasn’t included in the L.A. Times story. Was that an oversight?

I don’t think so. If a reporter were writing a profile of Friedman, it would make sense to note that fact, along with other background information such as when the judge was born and where he attended law school. But for some time I have worried about the practice of identifying a judge as an appointee of a particular president, as if that detail was as explanatory as the “D-Calif.” we append to the name of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

It usually isn’t.

Knowing which president appointed a judge is most relevant in connection with the Supreme Court, where, at least on some politically charged issues, Democratic appointees tend to take different positions than Republican appointees. It wasn’t a surprise, for example, that justices appointed by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama seemed sympathetic to the contraceptive mandate in Obamacare at oral arguments this week, while some Republican-appointed justices were more open to the idea that the mandate infringed on employers’ religious rights. (Commentators also noted that three of those Democratic appointees are women.)

But even Supreme Court justices don’t robotically do the bidding of the presidents who nominated them. (Just compare the voting records of President George H.W. Bush’s two Supreme Court appointees, Clarence Thomas and David H. Souter.) And when the judge in question sits on a federal district court, the “appointed by President X” factoid is as likely to mislead readers as to inform them.

Yes, presidents nominate district court judges, but they are proposed to the White House by home-state senators, sometimes as part of a deal in which a senator from the president’s party agrees to recommend the candidate of his colleague from the other party.

Also, a judge can have presidents of both parties in her pedigree. That’s the case with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was first appointed to the federal bench in New York by a Republican, George H.W. Bush, and then elevated to higher courts by Democrats Clinton and Obama.

Finally, if reporters are obliged to say which president appointed a judge, shouldn’t they also make it clear how many senators voted to confirm the nomination and whether the vote broke down along party lines? Too much information, you say? Not relevant? The same can be said of most references in news stories to the president who appointed a judge.


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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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