68 Pages Posted: 13 Apr 2016 Last revised: 4 Oct 2016
Date Written: April 11, 2016
The first rule of administrative law is that discretion can be dangerous. Although discretion is often used for its intended purposes, scholars of the regulatory process understand from both theory and experience that unintended consequences sometimes result. This is one reason why the Supreme Court is cautious when it comes to agency discretion. After decades of preventing agencies from acting in arbitrary or even self-interested ways, the modern Court has developed a fairly sophisticated understanding of the risks and rewards of discretion and why it is essential to pay attention to incentives for the proper exercise of discretion.
That is, unless the Supreme Court is addressing judicial discretion. Then, its sophistication all too often gets tossed aside. Qualified immunity is a perfect example. In Pearson v. Callahan, the Court granted judges confronting novel civil-rights claims maximalist discretion whether to decide constitutional questions for the public’s benefit. The intent behind this new discretion is sound: flexibility allows judges to balance constitutional avoidance versus constitutional stagnation in light of case-specific factors. What the Court forgot, however, is that discretion can also have unintended consequences.
This Article addresses perhaps the most serious of these unintended consequences: strategic behavior by judges. While the Court recognizes that federal agencies may have incentives to use discretion in strategic ways, neither the Justices nor scholars have considered the strategic considerations that can influence a judge’s discretionary decision to clearly establish constitutional rights. The potential for strategic behavior is especially sharp, moreover, when discretion to decide constitutional questions is combined with discretion to issue unpublished, nonprecedential opinions. To illustrate this danger, this Article examines real-world judicial decisionmaking. Reviewing over 800 published and unpublished circuit decisions, this Article identifies significant “panel effects”: politically unified panels are more likely to exercise discretion either to find no constitutional violation, for “all Republican” panels, or to recognize new constitutional rights, for “all Democratic” panels. Yet on mixed panels there are no differences, suggesting a collegial concurrence or a majority compromise to avoid dissent. The decision to publish also appears to be used strategically. For instance, one in five decisions recognizing new constitutional rights is unpublished. This potential for strategic behavior — as in the administrative law context — begs for reform.
Keywords: constitutional litigation, qualified immunity, discretion, strategic behavior, administrative law, delegation
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation