What The Money Says About Federal Judges on Trump’s SCOTUS List

Money talks…or so the saying goes.  This is especially true in the world of politics with multi-million dollar campaigns that could not survive without it.  Federal judges, however, are unelected and so they do not run political campaigns that leave financial trails.   Once on the bench, federal judges must preserve a sense of impartiality which precludes campaign donations.  This does not mean though that campaign contributions are irrelevant in the world of judging.  This post looks at two ways where campaign contributions help us learn about judges – and specifically the federal judges that President Elect Trump may nominate to the Supreme Court based on his list of twenty-one potential candidates.

In a very interesting recent article, Adam Chilton, Maya Sen and several co-authors found a robust correlation between law clerks’ campaign contributions and the voting ideologies of their employer judges.  Although there is sparse data on campaign donations from clerks for Trump’s nominees, we can use the available data to speculate on the preferences of clerks in these judges’ chambers.

A second use of campaign finance data relates to the judges themselves.  Although as judges these individuals do not made campaign contributions, each had a career prior to joining the bench  where they could (and often did) make such contributions.  In these previous capacities they made various contributions which show the types of candidates they have supported.  Looking at campaign finance data from these two perspectives, we gain additional purchase on these judges’ approaches to decision-making and on their political philosophies.

Recall that Trump’s list of federal judges includes Judges Steven Colloton, Neil Gorsuch, Raymond Gruender, Thomas Hardiman, Raymond Kethledge, William Pryor, Diane Sykes, and Timothy Tymkovich from the courts of appeals; Judges Federico Moreno and Amul Thapar from federal district courts; and Judge Margaret Ryan from the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.  There is much variation in the available information on each of these judges.  We only have data on campaign contributions from one former clerk, for instance, for Judge Ryan on the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.

In the aggregate, these judges’ former clerks supported candidates for a variety of offices.  We were able to locate this data with the help of campaign contribution information provided by OpenSecrets.org.  The first office this post examines is that of President.  We look at which Presidential and Presidential Primary campaigns these clerks have donated to in the last several elections in the figure below.


Interestingly, aside from Judges Tymkovich’s, Ryan’s, and Pryor’s clerks, clerks for all other judges donated to at least one Democratic candidate for President.  As Judge Pryor is the only one of these three judges with more than two clerk observations of donations to Presidential campaigns, this shows that these judges’ former clerks had a strong propensity to donate to Presidential candidates across party lines.

The clerk data, however, also have another element that allow for comparison between judges.  Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal maintain a database of Congressional ideology scores (known as Common Space Scores) based on House and Senate representatives’ votes.  Utilizing this data, we averaged out by judge the ideologies of the candidates supported by the former clerks.  Although this only provides a very rough gauge of the former clerks’ possible ideological preferences based on the candidates they supported, it allows for basic comparison between the clerks (and more importantly their respective former employer judges).  Each judge measurement below is based on multiple campaign contributions.


The range of possible values is between -1 and 1 with 1 as highly conservative and -1 as highly liberal.  Judge Kethledge, the judge with the most liberal former clerks’ ideologies (based on these campaign contributions), has only one associated contribution to a Republican candidate compared with multiple contributions to Democratic candidates.  By comparison, on the other end of the spectrum, all of the donations from Judge Tymkovich’s former clerks went to Republican candidates.

To put the ideological spectrum into some perspective, the most conservative candidates who the former clerks donated to based on these ideology scores were Rand Paul (KY) and Ted Cruz (TX), while the most liberal candidates were Alan Lowenthal (CA) and Bobby Rush (IL).

An alternative contribution measure is the judges’ own donations before they were appointed to their federal posts.  Followthemoney.org provides many years of contribution data we linked up to most the federal judges on the list.  Here is a summary of this data by judge:

  • Gorsuch: One donation to Brian Morris, a candidate for the Montana Supreme Court.
  • Colloton: Six donations to a variety of Republican candidates. The most, $1,000 was to George W. Bush’s campaign for President in 2000 (the donation was made in 1999).
  • Gruender: Six donations were made to a variety of Republican candidates. The most was also in support George W. Bush’s Presidential campaign in 2000. This was in the amount of $500.
  • Hardiman: Judge Hardiman has seventeen listed prior donations. These were made primarily to Republican candidates’ campaigns as well as to one Democratic candidate’s campaign.  As with the other judges, Hardiman’s most significant donation was to George W. Bush’s Presidential campaign in 2000.  This was in the amount of $2,000.
  • Kethledge: Judge Kethledge had five prior donations. Four were to Republican candidates for office. The fifth was to the Republican State Committee of Michigan.  The amount of these contributions ranged from $500 to $900.
  • Sykes: Judge Sykes had four prior contributions to judges seeking election to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. These nonpartisan donations were made between 1989 and 1997 in amounts varying from $50 to $250.
  • Tymkovich: Judge Tymkovich has eight prior donations to Republican candidates for office from the years 1996 through 2002 and ranging from $25 to $200.
  • Ryan: Judge Ryan has three prior donations. Two of these were to Republican candidates for office and one to a Republican organization.  All were made in 2006.
  • Pryor (Committee for Reelect as Attorney General): Judge Pryor’s election committee donated $49,412 in campaign contributions in 2006. The largest of these contributions was $30,000 to Luther Strange’s campaign for Lieutenant Governor of Alabama.

The two judges that only donated to judges’ campaigns were Judges Gorsuch and Sykes.  The other judges on this list formerly donated to political campaigns and almost entirely to Republican candidates.

When we look holistically at this data on campaign contributions, Judges Tymkovich and Pryor are the most uniformly conservative.

An upcoming post on a similar theme will inspect donations to the state judges on Trump’s list as well as their own clerks’ campaign contributions to see what this says about their relative preferences.

On Twitter: @AdamSFeldman

With research assistance from: @SamuelPMorse

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