Decision Making in the U.S. Courts of Appeals: The Determinants of Reversal on Appeal VIRGINIA A . HETTINGER AND STEFANIE A . LINDQUIST
The United States courts of appeals serve as the intermediate appellate courts in the federal judicial system. Organized geographically by circuit, the federal appeals courts (or “circuit courts,” as they are commonly called) were created by Congress to provide the first level of appellate review over decisions rendered in the federal district courts and by most federal administrative agencies. Cases appealed to the circuit courts are subject to mandatory review: that is, unless the appeal presents arguments that are legally frivolous, parties who lose at the trial or agency level have the right to appeal to the appropriate circuit court. As a result, the circuit courts resolve many thousands of appeals each year. In 2010, for example, circuit judges decided more than 60,000 appeals from federal district courts and administrative agencies. In contrast to circuit courts’ obligation to hear most appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court has broad discretion to choose the cases it will hear via the writ of certiorari, subject only to the rule that four justices must agree to hear an appeal.1 In recent years, the Supreme Court has exercised its discretion to hear only about 100 cases per year. For the vast majority of cases, therefore, the federal courts of appeals offer litigants their last opportunity to ensure that the initial district court or agency decision was legally and factually correct. Federal circuit courts thus “serve as the instrument[s] of accountability for those who make the basic decisions in trial courts and administrative agencies” (Carrington, Meador, and Rosenberg 1976, 2). In this chapter, we explore how the federal appellate courts perform this important supervisory role by evaluating the factors that influence circuit judges’ decisions to reverse decisions made by district judges and federal agencies. We begin by briefly explaining the structure and function of the federal circuit courts, as well as the relationship between the key functions served by appellate courts and the power to reverse the decision below. We then consider general trends in circuit court reversal rates over the last several decades to explore different norms across the circuits and to consider the potential relationship between reversal rates and caseload. Finally, we consider what factors shape individual circuit judges’ votes to reverse by modeling those
votes as a function of judges’ experiences, ideology, case factors, institutional roles, and circuit characteristics.