GOP-appointed judges less likely to require masks during COVID - study

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  • Study finds Republican appointees also more likely to suspend trials
  • Authors conclude ideology can influence court administration

(Reuters) - Chief federal district judges appointed by Republican presidents were less likely to require masks in court as a response to COVID-19, but more likely to suspend in-person trials, according to a new study by four law professors.

The study, made public Thursday, comes from Adam Chilton of the University of Chicago Law School, Christopher Cotropia of the University of Richmond School of Law, Kyle Rozema of the Washington University School of Law and David Schwartz of the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which oversees the operations of federal courts nationwide, declined to comment.

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Federal courts' COVID policies were generally set by the chief judges for each judicial district. The study's authors said they focused on the 24 states that have multiple districts, in order to separate the effect of judges' ideology from any requirements imposed by state governments.

They also said that they compiled data about local COVID policies, COVID death rates and share of local population belonging to categories at heightened risk from COVID, such as the elderly, to control for how those factors may have influenced chief judges' decisions.

The study looked at data from March 2020 to July 2021.

The authors found that, while Republican-appointed chief judges closed courthouses only 2% of the time, compared to 12% for Democratic-appointed judges, that difference could be attributed to non-ideological factors.

However, they concluded that ideology accounted for some of the difference in mask mandates, which were imposed 52% of the time by Democratic-appointed chief judges and 43% of the time by Republican-appointed chief judges.

They also found that ideology could explain some of the difference in policies on in-person trials. Republican appointees halted in-person criminal trials 60% of the time, while Democratic appointees halted them only 47% of the time, according to the study.

The authors suggested that difference could have arisen because conservative judges are "less likely to adopt policies that are favorable to criminal defendants," who could end up waiting in jail longer as a result of suspended trials.

"This should serve as an important reminder that the federal judiciary is not a branch of government governed by legal and practice considerations alone," the authors wrote. "Instead, politics plays an important role in the administration of our judiciary beyond just the way that cases are decided."

(NOTE: This article has been updated to state that the Administrative Office of the Courts declined to comment.)

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Brendan Pierson reports on product liability litigation and on all areas of health care law. He can be reached at brendan.pierson@thomsonreuters.com.