Thursday, March 29, 2012

Does Having Daughters Affect Judges’ Voting?

The Woman: Maya Sen, Doctoral Candidate, Harvard Department of Government
The Talk: Like Daughter, Like Judge: How Having Daughters Affects Judges’ Voting on Women’s Issues
The Question: Is it political party, or social ties, that impact judges' voting?

Maya Sen began her talk earlier today with a photo of Justice Blackmun. “Does anyone know who this is?” she asked casually. The audience, including myself, starred back blankly. “No? He is a lifelong republican, appointed by Richard Nixon, to the Supreme Court in 1970.” Still no response from the audience. “He is the author of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, and the father of three daughters.” Justice Harry Blackmun wrote the famous opinion in 1973, arguably the most important Supreme Court decision on women’s issues.

Of Blackmun’s three daughters, one became pregnant in college. She later miscarried, but not before dropping out and marrying her then boyfriend. Did this experience impact Justice Blackmun's historic decision? It is impossible to determine; however, Sen uses this analogy to question, “Is it our political affiliations, or our social ties, that influence a justice’s decisions?”

Although Sen’s research is in its preliminary phase, her and several colleagues argue the latter view. Their research looks at the rulings of “gender-related” cases from more than 400 judges on the Court of Appeals from 1996 to 2002. What they find is that when a judge has a daughter -- even just one daughter -- it increases the probability he or she will vote in liberal direction on gender cases. Furthermore, these findings appear to be even more pronounced for men who were nominated by a Republican -- by up to 10 percent. This effect persists even after controlling for age, race, and religion.

So why is this important?
Most political science literature claims a justice’s ideological position tends to be based on the party who appointed him or her, or the judge’s individual interpretation of a specific legal text. However, Sen and other researchers appear to be challenging this. Additional research from Yale corroborates that, “each daughter increases a congress person’s propensity to vote liberally, particularly on reproductive rights issues.”* Supporting these findings, Sen’s research did not show liberal leaning tendencies on all rulings, just gender-related cases.

Justices frequently rule on significant gender related issues -- discrimination at public military colleges, decisions on partial birth abortions, laws around domestic violence -- almost always disproportionately impact women. As of 2008, the US Court of Appeals had only 65 female judges, or slightly over 10 percent. While almost 50 percent of recent law school graduates are female, women still lack parity in the courtroom. Perhaps empathetic justices can make up the difference.

Melissa Sandgren is a MPP1 at the Harvard Kennedy School and a participant in WAPPP's From Harvard Square to the Oval Office program.

*Washington, Ebonya (2007). "Female Socialization: How Daughters Affect Their Legislator Fathers’ Voting on Women’s Issues," Yale University, New Haven, CT.

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