Study concludes a well-worn gripe may be right: ABA ratings are biased against conservative nominees
Marcia Coyle / Staff reporter

March 18, 2009

WASHINGTON — Controversy over the American Bar Association's ratings of potential judicial nominees is likely to continue with the announcement that the bar group will resume its role of evaluating candidates before their nominations. In fact, a soon-to-be-released study by political scientists concludes what conservative groups have long charged: The ratings are biased against potential conservative nominees.

Political scientists Richard Vining of the University of Georgia, Amy Steigerwalt of Georgia State University and Susan Smelcer, an Emory University doctoral candidate, will present their findings next month at the Midwest Political Science Association's 67th Annual National Conference.

The three academics, all of whom specialize in studying the intersection of the courts and politics, examined every nominee to the federal courts of appeals from 1985 to 2008, regardless of whether the nominee was confirmed or had a confirmation hearing.

"There's been a lot of discussion about whether the ABA ratings might be biased against potential conservative nominees," said Steigerwalt. The arguments "gained steam," she said, when Robert Bork received a split well-qualified/not qualified rating for the U.S. Supreme Court.

The not qualified part of the rating was due to questions about judicial temperament, she recalled, and many conservatives felt that temperament became a code word for "not liberal."


"What we found are some things that sort of mirror what other studies have said as well as new findings, but we have conclusions that people can rely on," she said.

The findings:

• Nominees appointed by Democratic presidents are more likely to receive higher ABA ratings than nominees appointed by Republican presidents.

• The more conservative the nominee, the less likely he or she will receive a high ABA rating.

• White nominees are more likely to get higher ratings than minority nominees.

• Nominees with judicial experience receive higher ratings than those without judicial experience.

• Nominees who were previously congressional staff members were more likely to receive lower ratings, but those who served as executive branch attorneys were more likely to receive higher ratings.

Steigerwalt said they hope to extend their study to district court nominees in the future.