ABA Nominee Ratings: May Their Days Be Numbered

by Jonathan Keim

A perennial feature of judicial nominations is the obligatory rating by the American Bar Association. Just as perennially, the ABA’s ratings are so obviously politically biased that they make Pravda look like the Washington Post. The classic example was when the ABA gave Frank H. Easterbrook and Richard A. Posner the “Qualified/Not Qualified” rating, its lowest at the time, despite the nominees’ ample professional qualifications, reams of academic publications, and undisputable intellectual acumen. (As predicted, these two little-known judges receded into perpetual obscurity after confirmation to the Seventh Circuit.)

The ABA’s ratings are biased in other ways, too. The New York Times recently reported on a study showing that the ABA rates minorities and women much lower than similarly-qualified white candidates, and that candidates with low ABA ratings (i.e., “not qualified”) were no more likely to be reversed than their higher-rated peers. Similarly, John Lott found that after controlling for education and professional achievements, the ABA rated Hispanics on average one level lower than whites.

There are many problems with the idea that one can rate the quality of a judge based on reversal rates or any other apparently neutral criterion. Judicial philosophy is the most important qualification for a judge, but philosophy can’t be easily quantified. The author of the study cited by the Times proposes that the ABA system should be based on “clear and verifiable” criteria, but there’s no reason to think that such criteria would be particularly revealing or neutral about a judge’s philosophy.

Nevertheless, there appear to be the seeds of consensus on both right and left that the ABA’s contribution to judicial confirmations is pernicious. If the New York Times article is any indication, maybe we can find some common ground in simply ignoring the ABA’s evaluations from now on.

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