74 Pages Posted: 14 Feb 2019
Date Written: February 4, 2019
Despite the fact that Article III judges hold particular seats on particular courts, the federal system rests on judicial interchangeability. Hundreds of judges “visit” other courts each year and collectively help decide thousands of appeals. Anyone from a retired Supreme Court Justice to a judge from the U.S. Court of International Trade to a district judge from out of circuit may come and hear cases on a given court of appeals. Although much has been written about the structure of the federal courts and the nature of Article III judgeships, little attention has been paid to the phenomenon of “sitting by designation” — how it came to be, how it functions today, and what it reveals about the judiciary more broadly.
This Article offers an overdue account of visiting judges. It begins by providing an origin story, showing how the current practice stems from two radically different traditions. The first saw judges as fixed geographically, and allowed for visitors only as a stopgap measure when individual judges fell ill or courts fell into arrears with their cases. The second assumed greater fluidity within the courts, requiring Supreme Court Justices to ride circuit — to visit different regions and act as trial and appellate judges — for the first half of the Court’s history. These two traditions together provide the critical context for modern-day visiting.
The Article then presents a thick descriptive analysis of contemporary practice. Relying on both qualitative and quantitative data, it brings to light the numerous differences in how the courts of appeals use outside judges today. While some courts regularly rely on visitors for workload relief, others bring in visiting judges to instruct them on the inner workings of the circuit, and another eschews having visitors altogether in part because the practice was once thought to be used for political ends.
These findings raise vital questions about inter- and intra-circuit consistency, the dissemination of culture and institutional knowledge within the courts, and the substitutability of federal judges. The Article concludes by taking up these questions, reflecting on the implications of visiting judges for the federal courts as a whole.
Keywords: Courts, Judicial Decision Making, Visiting Judges, Sitting by Designation
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