Signaling and Precedent in Federal District Court Opinions

Posted: 29 Apr 2004

See all articles by Andrew P. Morriss

Andrew P. Morriss

Texas A&M School of Innovation; PERC - Property and Environment Research Center

Michael Heise

Cornell Law School

Gregory C. Sisk

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota)

Date Written: April 2004


Standard economic analysis of judicial behavior, at least with respect to federal judges, has to some extent foundered on the apparent success of the Constitution's Framers in designing an institution where almost the whole thrust of the rules governing compensation and other terms and conditions of judicial employment is to divorce judicial action from incentives. That is, the structure takes away the carrots and sticks and the different benefits and costs associated with different behaviors which inform human action in an economic model. Nonetheless, our earlier empirical work, as well as work by others, found significant associations between promotion potential and judicial decision making in the federal district bench. This earlier work left unclear, however, how district judges might use their positions to enhance their opportunities for advancement. In this paper we examine how federal judges can use the content and outcome of their decisions to signal that they would be appropriate candidates for elevation to a higher court. We first develop a framework that explains how judges can use decisions and opinions to signal to appointing authority. We then test the theory through a detailed examination of federal district judges' behavior in their decisions on the constitutionality of the sentencing guidelines during the "Sentencing Guidelines Crisis of 1988." Examining judges' decisions to rule through a written opinion, we find evidence supporting the signaling hypothesis. Judges were more likely to use written opinions to communicate their rulings in Sentencing Guidelines cases where the potential for promotion to the circuit court of appeal was greater. We also find that precedent influences outcome but not the particular reasons judges articulate for their decisions.

Keywords: judges, judicial decisionmaking, economics, precedent

Suggested Citation

Morriss, Andrew P. and Heise, Michael and Sisk, Gregory C., Signaling and Precedent in Federal District Court Opinions (April 2004). Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 04-05; and Case Legal Studies Research Paper No. 04-7. Available at SSRN:

Andrew P. Morriss

Texas A&M School of Innovation ( email )

1249 TAMU / 645 Lamar St.
College Station, TX 77843
United States

PERC - Property and Environment Research Center ( email )

2048 Analysis Drive
Suite A
Bozeman, MT 59718
United States

Michael Heise (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

310 Myron Taylor Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States
607-255-0069 (Phone)
607-255-7193 (Fax)

Gregory C. Sisk

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota) ( email )

MSL 400, 1000 La Salle Avenue
Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
United States
651-962-4892 (Phone)

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