Predicting Federal Judicial Decisionmaking in University Admissions Cases

41 Pages Posted: 25 Feb 2016 Last revised: 15 Sep 2017

See all articles by CJ Ryan

CJ Ryan

Roger Williams University School of Law; American Bar Foundation

Date Written: June 13, 2016


This article uses an empirical lens to consider the evolving federal jurisprudence on the use of race in university admissions. I test the extent to which existing theoretical frameworks from the literature about judicial decision making can be used to explain federal judicial decisions in cases involving the use of race in university admissions policies—a highly political area of the law. Specifically, this test seeks to determine whether a judge’s decision to afford deference to a policy involving the use of race in university admissions can be predicted from background and socialized characteristics of the judge, idiosyncrasies of the court, or elements unique to the era in which the decision is made.

The results do not indicate strong support for the two frameworks that have drawn much attention in the judicial decision making literature: the attitudinal or political cultures theoretical frameworks. Instead, I find mixed support for the behavioral framework when examining substantive judicial decisions, stemming from the statistically significant effect on the decision attributable to a judge’s gender, suggesting deference among female judges to university admission policies. I also find significant and large effects for the era in which a decision is made supporting evidence of a punctuated equilibrium and legalistic theoretical framework in this sample of cases. Finally, I cross-validate of the model, using data points from multiple cases, removing them, and then predicting how the Supreme Court would have decided the case under the model, including a prediction of how the Fisher v. University of Texas II case might have been decided under the 2017 composition of the court. This empirical inquiry provides insight into important questions about individual and organization decision making in the federal judiciary, including the use of academic abstention and deference, as well as how race-conscious admissions policies will fare before judicial decision makers.

Keywords: Jurisprudence, Empirical Analysis, Decisionmaking, Decision making, Judges, Federal Judges, Universities, Higher Education, Race, Admissions, Race in Admissions

Suggested Citation

Ryan, Christopher, Predicting Federal Judicial Decisionmaking in University Admissions Cases (June 13, 2016). Available at SSRN: or

Christopher Ryan (Contact Author)

Roger Williams University School of Law ( email )

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Bristol, RI 02809
United States

American Bar Foundation ( email )

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