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Wilderness, the Courts, and the Effect of Politics on Judicial Decisionmaking

By Peter A. Appel

Empirical analyses of cases from federal courts have attempted to determine the effect of judges’ political ideology on their decisions. This question holds interest for scholars from many disciplines. Investigating judicial review of the actions of administrative agencies should provide strong evidence on the question of political influence because applicable rules of judicial deference to administrative decisions ought to lead judges to reach politically neutral results. Yet several studies have found a strong correlation between results in these cases and proxies for political ideology. Cases involving the interpretation of environmental law have been of particular interest as a subset of this research because political ideology is also thought to predict views on environmental regulation. Nevertheless, an earlier work offered initial evidence that this phenomenon may not hold in cases involving review of agency decisions administering the Wilderness Act of 1964. Indeed, the cases showed a pro-wilderness tilt in the outcomes, rather than a pro-agency tilt. This Article builds on that earlier evidence. It first provides an overview of empirical studies of environmental decisions in federal courts and then reviews the Wilderness Act and current problems arising in the administrative application of it. The Article then analyzes whether ideological proxies employed in earlier studies strongly correlate with the outcome of the Wilderness Act cases using standard statistical analysis. The analysis shows a lack of correlation between politics and the aggregate outcome of wilderness decisions, namely a tilt in a pro-wilderness direction.

Cite as: Peter A. Appel, Wilderness, the Courts, and the Effect of Politics on Judicial Decisionmaking, 35 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 275 (2011).

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