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An Empirical Analysis of Hierarchy Effects in Judicial Decision Making

33 Pages Posted: 23 May 2007  

Christopher J. Zorn

Pennsylvania State University

Jennifer Barnes Bowie

George Mason University

Date Written: June 30, 2007


Students of judicial decision making have long speculated that the factors influencing judicial decision making operate to varying degrees at different levels of the judicial hierarchy. Prominent among these has been what we term the "Hierarchy Postulate": that the effect of judges' policy preferences on their decisions increases as one moves up the judicial hierarchy. Yet to date no study has examined whether the influence of policy preferences on judges' decisions varies across the full range of the federal courts. We analyze the factors that influence judicial decision making using a unique, original data resource on cases decided at each level of U.S. federal court hierarchy. Doing so allows us to evaluate the differential impact of policy preferences on judicial decision making while simultaneously holding constant the influence of idiosyncratic, case-specific factors on those decisions. Our findings robustly and consistently support the contention that ideological and policy-related effects on federal judges' decisions are larger at higher levels of the judicial hierarchy, while legal and case-specific factors dominate at lower levels.

Keywords: hierarchy, judges, judging, decision-making, federal courts

Suggested Citation

Zorn, Christopher J. and Bowie, Jennifer Barnes, An Empirical Analysis of Hierarchy Effects in Judicial Decision Making (June 30, 2007). Available at SSRN: or

Christopher J. Zorn (Contact Author)

Pennsylvania State University ( email )

University Park
State College, PA 16802
United States

Jennifer Barnes Bowie

George Mason University ( email )

Department of Public and International Affairs
4400 University Drive, MSN 3F4
Fairfax, VA 22030
United States
803-237-2421 (Phone)
703.993.1399 (Fax)

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