How Compassionate?: Political Appointments & District Court Judge Responses to Compassionate Release During COVID-19
The Trump Administration sought to transform the judiciary by appointing numerous conservative judges to the bench, building on a Republican project that is decades in the making. This Note examines how judges are deciding compassionate release motions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has proven particularly deadly inside the nation’s prisons. This Note explores how judges appointed by Republicans and Democrats have ruled in more than 6,000 federal compassionate release cases in the first ten months of the pandemic, finding that judges appointed by Democrats are granting compassionate release at far higher rates than their Republican counterparts, with Trump judges granting among the fewest requests. The First Step Act of 2018 gave incarcerated individuals the right to file a motion for early release in court in light of “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances, and requests for release have skyrocketed since the outbreak of the virus. The unique conditions of the pandemic, high levels of virus transmission in prisons, and the highly discretionary nature of the compassionate release statute together offer a natural experiment for considering how judicial ideology impacts people’s lives. The results of this analysis underscore the importance of the fight over control of the judiciary going forward.
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