Challenging the Randomness of Panel Assignment in the Federal Courts of Appeals

57 Pages Posted: 11 Nov 2014 Last revised: 14 Nov 2017

See all articles by Adam Chilton

Adam Chilton

University of Chicago - Law School

Marin K. Levy

Duke University School of Law

Date Written: October 5, 2015


A fundamental academic assumption about the federal courts of appeals is that the three judge panels that hear cases have been randomly configured. Scores of scholarly articles have noted this “fact,” and it has been relied on heavily by empirical researchers. Even though there are practical reasons to doubt that judges would always be randomly assigned to panels — such as courts might well want to take into account the scheduling needs of their judges — this assumption has never been tested. This Article is the first to do so, and it calls the assumption into question.

To determine whether the circuit courts utilize random assignment, we have created what we believe to be the largest dataset of panel assignments of those courts constructed to date. Using this dataset, we tested whether panel assignments are, in fact, random by comparing the actual assignments to truly random panels generated by code that we have created to simulate the panel generation process. Our results provide evidence of nonrandomness in the federal courts of appeals.

To be sure, the analysis here is descriptive, not explanatory or normative. We do not ourselves mean to suggest that strict randomness is a desirable goal and indeed note that there are many good reasons for departing from it. Our aim is to test an existing scholarly assumption, and we believe our findings will have implications for the courts, court scholars, and empirical researchers.

Keywords: courts

Suggested Citation

Chilton, Adam and Levy, Marin K., Challenging the Randomness of Panel Assignment in the Federal Courts of Appeals (October 5, 2015). Duke Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Series No. 2015-1, U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 529, Available at SSRN: or

Adam Chilton

University of Chicago - Law School ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States


Marin K. Levy (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States

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