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Appellate Court Supervision in the Federal Judiciary: A Hierarchical Perspective

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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.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2003-03-01

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