That’s the intriguing question raised by Joshua Fischman and Max Schanzenbach’s new article, “Do Standards of Review Matter? The Case of Federal Criminal Sentencing,” 40 J. Legal Studies 405 (2011). Schanzenbach has produced a series of fascinating empirical studies of federal sentencing over the years. Among other things, his prior work served to demonstrate that Democratic and Republican appointees tend to sentence differently. The new paper adds a new dimension to this finding by showing that Democratic district judges tend to change their sentencing practices when the appellate standard of review changes, while Republican sentencing seems relatively unaffected. In other words, to put a sharper point on the findings, Democrats seem to sentence more frequently under the guidelines range when they know they can get away with it.
Does this demonstrate that Democrats sentence based on their personal social values, rather than on legally permissible considerations, while Republicans are more faithful to the law? That’s one plausible interpretation of the data, but not the only one.