How Should We Study District Judge Decision-Making?
30 Pages Posted: 5 Mar 2010 Last revised: 7 Nov 2012
Date Written: March 3, 2010
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.
Keywords: district, courts, judging, litigation, judicial, decision-making
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