'Downright Indifference': Examining Unpublished Decisions in the Federal Courts of Appeals

77 Pages Posted: 12 Sep 2019 Last revised: 23 Mar 2022

See all articles by Merritt McAlister

Merritt McAlister

University of Florida Levin College of Law

Date Written: September 4, 2019


Nearly ninety percent of the work of the federal courts of appeals looks nothing like the opinions law students read in casebooks. Over the last fifty years, the so-called “unpublished decision” has overtaken the federal appellate courts in response to a caseload volume “crisis.” These are often short, perfunctory decisions that make no law; they are, one federal judge said, “not safe for human consumption.”

The creation of the inferior unpublished decision also has led to the creation of an inferior track of appellate justice for a class of appellants: indigent litigants. The federal appellate courts routinely shunt indigent appeals to a second-tier appellate process where judicial staff attorneys resolve appeals without oral argument or meaningful judicial oversight. For the system’s most vulnerable participants, the promise of an appeal as of right often becomes a rubber stamp: “You lose.”

This work examines the product of that second-class appellate justice system by filling two critical gaps in the existing literature. First, it compiles comprehensive data on the use of unpublished decisions across the circuits over the last twenty years. The data reveal, for the first time, that the courts’ continued — and increasing — reliance on unpublished decisions has no correlation to overall caseload volume. Second, it examines the output of the second-tier appellate justice system from the perspective of the litigants themselves. Relying on a procedural justice framework, this work develops a taxonomy of unpublished decisions and argues for minimal reason-giving standards in most unpublished decisions.

Keywords: unpublished decisions, judicial decisionmaking, courts law, federal courts, access to justice, procedural justice

Suggested Citation

McAlister, Merritt, 'Downright Indifference': Examining Unpublished Decisions in the Federal Courts of Appeals (September 4, 2019). Michigan Law Review, Vol. 118, No. 4, 2020, University of Florida Levin College of Law Research Paper No. 19-28, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3447984

Merritt McAlister (Contact Author)

University of Florida Levin College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 117625
Gainesville, FL 32611-7625
United States
3522730981 (Phone)

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