How Should We Study District Judge Decision-Making?
24 Pages Posted: 16 Apr 2008
Date Written: April 11, 2008
Judges' decision-making cannot be understood without paying attention to the specific institutional settings in which those judges operate. Their choices are influenced not only by the law and facts of the case, but also by the procedural context in which they reach their decisions. And the incentives and constraints shaping their decision-making will vary depending on, for example, whether they have a life-appointment or are elected; whether they hear cases alone or with colleagues; and whether and under what circumstances their decisions might be altered, overturned, or undone by the actions of others. The basic insight that institutional framework matters has led to increasingly sophisticated studies of how strategic interactions among Supreme Court justices, among branches of government, and within a judicial hierarchy shape judicial decision-making. But studies of federal district judges - the nearly 1000 judges who compose 78% of the federal judiciary and superintend 79% of its cases - have not matched this sophistication. Instead, much of the existing empirical work on federal district courts has failed to take account of the institutional setting in which those judges operate.
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 begin by setting out in Part II what it is that district judges do and how their role differs substantially from that of appellate judges. In Part III 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. Part IV then proposes our new approach to studying decision-making on the district courts. By using dockets, orders, and other case documents, as well as opinions, as data sources, researchers can take into account both procedural context and the iterative nature of district court decision-making. In addition, using dockets permits direct study of selection effects. Finally, in Part V, we describe our current work collecting data on cases filed in the federal district courts by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over a ten-year period of time, and describe the data gathering protocol that will enable us to undertake empirical analyses more appropriate to district judge decision-making.
Keywords: district courts, judges, litigation
JEL Classification: K41
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation