Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Appellate Court Supervision in the Federal Judiciary: A Hierarchical Perspective

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Appellate Court Supervision in the Federal Judiciary: A Hierarchical Perspective

Article excerpt

In this article, we examine factors that influence appellate supervision in the lower tiers of the federal judicial hierarchy. Drawing on the insights of agency theory, we develop a framework to assess the determinants of circuit panel decisions to affirm or reverse federal district court rulings. Our analysis of U.S. Courts of Appeals' published civil rights decisions over a 29-year period (1971-1999) offers support for several hypothesized relationships. As expected, the outcome of appellate review varied with the level of agreement between the preferences of the circuit (as principal) and the policy position of the trial court (as agent). In addition, we found that circuits were more likely to affirm trial court decisions that were contrary to the preferences of the federal district court judge, suggesting that circuit judges may rely on ideological signals when evaluating appeals before them. We also hypothesized that the monitoring activities of circuits would be influenced by individual circuits' relationship with their principal, the Supreme Court. Consistent with these expectations, panels were more likely to reverse district court rulings that were incongruous with the policy predisposition of the High Court. In addition, as Supreme Court scrutiny of a circuit increased, the likelihood of a circuit panel subsequently reversing a district court also increased. Although further inquiry is necessary to clarify the interpretation of this result, the finding does suggest that district courts are more likely to engage in decision making that deviates from circuit preferences when that circuit faces more intense supervision from the Supreme Court.

Introduction

"In theory,... federal judges form a pyramid that supports the will of [Supreme Court] Justices. In reality, federal judicial power is widely diffused among lower court judges who are insulated by deep traditions of independence" (Howard 1981:3). As this quote describes, the federal judicial hierarchy is designed to enable the Supreme Court, sitting at the system's apex, to impose its collective will on lower federal judges. Yet the Court's control is far from absolute: the decentralized structure of the federal judicial system, in combination with the Court's limited institutional capacity, provide lower court judges with considerable discretion to fashion case outcomes in accordance with their own legal and policy preferences. These cross-pressures in the federal court system have led scholars to examine the extent to which the High Court successfully influences the decisional outputs of the courts below (Johnson 1979; Gruhl 1980; Songer 1987; Songer, Segal, & Cameron 1994; Cameron, Segal, & Songer 2000; Baum 1994).

Appellate supervision over lower courts is not exercised solely by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the lower tiers of the hierarchy, circuit courts are expected to monitor the decisional outputs of the federal district courts (Baum 1980). Of course, the most significant supervisory tool available to the circuit court is the power to reverse or affirm the lower court. Although the power to reverse is exercised relatively infrequently by the circuit courts, it nevertheless serves as a compelling mechanism to shape lower court decision making and to signal the circuit's preferences concerning legal policy. Affirmances also serve to signal the circuit court's preferences and shape lower court decisional outcomes by confirming the approach adopted by the trial court. In this article, therefore, we ask how appellate courts use this significant power of review to control decision making in the lower courts. In particular, we seek to identify the critical determinants underlying appeals court judges' choices to alter the status quo created by the lower court's ruling. As part of that effort, we recognize that this decision may be influenced by an institutional environment in which resources are scarce and caseloads are high. Drawing from a theoretical perspective that recognizes the interplay between attitudes and institutional structures in models of judicial decision making, we identify and evaluate the determinants of circuit court decisions to affirm or reverse the judgment of the district court in civil rights and liberties cases over a 29-year period. …

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