Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name



Political Science

First Advisor

Ronald E. Brown


Recent decisions regarding LGBT rights, reproductive rights, and racial and gender equality by U.S. District Courts have illuminated how these lower federal courts are increasingly becoming important policymakers in our political system. However, research to date has only scratched the surface on district court decision making in cases involving significant constitutional issues such as these. The substantial variation among judges (and among states/regions) in the decisions made and resulting policies indicates the existence of powerful, competing influences on district judges. I conduct a comprehensive analysis of many potential influences on district court judges, including individual ideology, personal characteristics, legal factors, and strategy; I also examine the influence of public opinion on judges, a variable that has been heretofore ignored at the district court level, most likely due to the difficulty of obtaining state-level public opinion data. I do so using a unique dataset I’ve created, which includes every district court case over a 22-year period (1991-2012) involving LGBT rights, abortion, and affirmative action. My results run counter to several recent studies discounting the role of ideology on district court judges by strongly confirming the importance of such ideology, at least when salient constitutional rights are involved. Additionally, public opinion does appear to play a role in certain cases, a finding that suggests we should change the way we look at the role of district courts in our current political system, as well as opens up a whole new avenue of study for judicial scholars.