The Pervasive Influence of Political Composition on Circuit Court Decisions

Harvard Law and Economics Discussion Paper No. 1109
Harvard Public Law Working Paper 24-01

61 Pages Posted: 3 Aug 2023 Last revised: 16 Feb 2024

See all articles by Alma Cohen

Alma Cohen

Harvard Law School; Tel Aviv University - Eitan Berglas School of Economics; Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR); European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI); National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

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Date Written: February 15, 2024

Abstract

Using a novel and massive dataset of about 650,000 circuit court decisions, this paper empirically investigates the significance of the political affiliations of circuit court judges, as proxied by the party of the appointing president.

The analysis shows that these affiliations can help predict circuit court decisions in case categories that together represent more than 90% of all circuit court cases. The association between political affiliation and outcomes is thus pervasive in the vast universe of circuit court decisions, and it is not limited to the ideologically salient cases on which previous research has focused.

In particular, I find an association between political affiliations and outcomes in each of six categories of cases between parties that could be perceived by judges to have unequal power. In each of these categories, the more Democratic judges a panel has, the higher the odds of a panel decision siding with the seemingly weaker party.

Furthermore, political affiliation is also associated with outcomes in the large set of civil cases between parties that seemingly are of equal power. In these cases, the more Democratic judges on the panel, the lower the odds of a panel deferring to the lower-court decision.

The paper resolves the long-standing debate on the extent to which the political affiliations are associated with decisions in the circuit courts of appeals. I conclude by discussing the implications, both for understanding the evolving body of circuit court decisions and for assessing the rules and arrangements that govern such courts.

Keywords: federal courts, circuit courts, courts of appeals, federal district courts, judicial decisions, political appointment of judges, polarization, political disparity

JEL Classification: D72, J15, J16, K41, K42

Suggested Citation

Cohen, Alma, The Pervasive Influence of Political Composition on Circuit Court Decisions (February 15, 2024). Harvard Law and Economics Discussion Paper No. 1109
Harvard Public Law Working Paper 24-01
, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4528999 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4528999

Alma Cohen (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

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Tel Aviv University - Eitan Berglas School of Economics ( email )

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National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) ( email )

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