The Journal of Politics


Sounding the Fire Alarm: The Role of Interest Groups in the Lower Federal Court Confirmation Process

Nancy Scherera1, Brandon L. Bartelsa2 and Amy Steigerwalta3

a1 Wellesley College

a2 Stony Brook University

a3 Georgia State University


Traditionally, lower federal court nominations were confirmed swiftly and unanimously by the Senate. However, increasingly, lower court confirmations have become lengthy and contentious proceedings. Traditional explanations for this shift have centered on the temporal political environment and the ideological extremism of the nominees. We propose an alternative theory to explain this phenomenon: interest group opposition. We posit that interest groups sound “fire alarms”—raising the salience of a lower court nomination—thereby forcing senators politically aligned with the groups to abandon the senators’ default positions (confirm swiftly) and instead give the opposed nominee thorough consideration and perhaps even block confirmation all together. Our theory is supported by exclusive interview testimony from key players in judicial confirmation politics. We also test our theory using data on all U.S. Courts of Appeals nominations, 1985–2004. We find interest group opposition far eclipses previous explanations about lower court confirmation outcomes and timing.

(Received August 17 2006)

(Accepted November 10 2007)


Nancy Scherer is assistant professor of political science, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA 02481. Brandon L. Bartels is assistant professor of political science, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794. Amy Steigerwalt is assistant professor of political science, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA 30303.