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How Should We Study District Judge Decision-Making?


Pauline T. Kim


Washington University in Saint Louis - School of Law

March 3, 2010

Washington University Journal of Law and Policy, Vol. 29, No. 83, 2009
Washington University School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series No. 10-03-01

Abstract:     
Understanding judicial decision-making requires attention to the specific institutional settings in which judges operate. Yet much of the existing empirical work on federal district courts has failed to take account of the setting in which those judges operate. Too often, empirical studies of the district courts rely on an implicit assumption that judging at the trial court level is fundamentally the same as judging at the appellate level. We argue that this approach is misguided, because the nature of district judges’ work is substantially different from that of appellate judges. For example, unlike in the typical appellate case, a district judge may rule in a single case on multiple occasions and on different types of questions, only a few of which could be dispositive but all of which affect the case’s progress and ultimate outcome. In this Essay, we argue for a new and more suitable approach to studying decision-making in the federal district courts - one that takes into account the trial level litigation process and the varied nature of the tasks judging in a trial court entails. We critique the existing empirical literature’s predominant method for studying district courts - analysis of district court opinions, usually published opinions - and discuss the limitations and biases inherent in this approach and propose a new approach to studying decision-making by district judges. By taking advantage of the electronic docketing system now operating in all federal district courts, researchers can use dockets, orders, and other case documents, as well as opinions, as data sources, thereby incorporating into their analysis the relevant institutional features of district courts. In particular, expanding the focus beyond opinions allows researchers to capture both the procedural context and the iterative nature of district judge decision-making. We also describe an ongoing project focused on the litigation activities of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in which we implement this new approach to studying the work of the district courts.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 30

Keywords: district, courts, judging, litigation, judicial, decision-making

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Date posted: March 5, 2010 ; Last revised: November 7, 2012

Suggested Citation

Kim, Pauline T., How Should We Study District Judge Decision-Making? (March 3, 2010). Washington University Journal of Law and Policy, Vol. 29, No. 83, 2009; Washington University School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series No. 10-03-01. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1564325

Contact Information

Pauline T. Kim (Contact Author)
Washington University in Saint Louis - School of Law ( email )
Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States
314-935-8570 (Phone)
314-935-5356 (Fax)
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