The Role and Impact of Chief Judges on the United States Courts of Appeals*

By Hettinger, Virginia A.; Lindquist, Stefanie A. et al. | Justice System Journal, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Role and Impact of Chief Judges on the United States Courts of Appeals*


Hettinger, Virginia A., Lindquist, Stefanie A., Martinek, Wendy L., Justice System Journal


We describe the role of the chief judge on the United States Courts of Appeals, provide a profile of past chief judges, and assess their influence on decision making by appellate panels. In particular, we analyze the chief judge's influence on consensus within individual panels and between the appellate panel and the district court below. We model the likelihood of dissenting opinions from panel decisions and the likelihood of lower-court reversal and find little evidence that the chief judge is able to promote consensus in either case, although individual chief judges are less likely to dissent from panel decisions themselves.

Like the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, who is the chief administrator for the entire federal court system, chief judges on the United States Courts of Appeals serve as the chief administrative leaders for their individual circuits. The job requirements of the chief judge are varied and demanding, as chief judges bear the ultimate responsibility for the efficient and effective operation of the entire circuit, including the work of all circuit, district, bankruptcy, and magistrate judges. Yet chief judges continue to decide cases as well, participating in the resolution of individual cases as members of circuit panels. In so doing, they enjoy certain prerogatives in that, as the most senior active judges, they always preside over panels on which they sit and thus assign the opinions when in the majority. Chief judges further preside over en banc hearings, also assigning opinions there when in the majority.1 Given the importance of en banc review for the development of circuit precedent, this authority is significant. Yet as we discuss below, these formal powers are relatively limited. It may be, however, that the prestige associated with the office provides some chief judges with the basis to assert policy leadership as well as administrative leadership. As one commentary has noted, the chief judges' formal powers and prestige "provide[ ] [them] with a sizable reservoir of authority-authority that chief judges can enhance depending on their personal leadership skills and their willingness and ability to capitalize on the prestige of the position" (Federal Judicial Center, 2001:6).

Researchers have amply demonstrated the policy influence that the Chief Justice on the United States Supreme Court derives from formal powers associated with the administration of the Court and from informal powers of persuasion (e.g., Danelski, 1960; Haynie, 1992; Walker, Epstein, and Dixon, 1988).2 In contrast, researchers have generally overlooked the potential importance and influence of the chief judge on the United States Courts of Appeals, with a few prominent exceptions (see Atkins and Zavoina, 1974; Howard, 1981; Peppers, Vigilante, and Zorn, 2000). In this article, we describe the office, provide a profile of judges who have served as chief judge from 1948 to the present, and evaluate the extent to which chief judges influence decision making on the circuits. We begin with a brief description of the selection, duties, and privileges of the chief judge.

The Office of Chief Judge

Until 1948, the administrative leadership of the federal circuit courts fell to the most senior active circuit judge in each circuit under the 1891 Evarts Act.3 Senior circuit judges exercised administrative duties (such as presiding over court) that were typically carried out by Supreme Court justices when those justices were not riding circuit. Later congressional acts strengthened the administrative role of the senior circuit judges by authorizing them to gather information about case processing in the district courts, to evaluate the need for more judicial assistance, and to report the information to the Judicial Conference of the United States. Senior circuit judges also met annually during the tenures of Chief Justices Taft and Hughes to provide advice on the effective functioning of the federal judiciary.

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