Appellate Courts Inside and Out


In "Inside Appellate Courts: The Impact of Court Organization on Judicial Decision Making in The United States Courts of Appeals" (Michigan 2002), Jonathan Matthew Cohen, a sociologist and practicing attorney, asks a question that has received scant attention in the academic commentary on appellate judging: If we accept the dominant conception of appellate court judging as a process of atomistic contemplation, how do federal circuit court judges continue to maintain high quality opinions in the face of pervasively growing judicial dockets? Cohen advances the provocative thesis that increasing workloads have not prevented appellate judges from producing high quality outputs, but rather, that the dominant image of appellate judging as an isolated contemplative task is conceptually flawed. A better approach, Cohen argues, is to compare the task of appellate court judging to production within a multi-divisional private firm. While Cohen recognizes the inherent limits of his analogy, and in particular, that unlike private firms, circuit courts lack a central coordinating authority, he nonetheless contends that it is more fruitful to consider the judges in the manner of workers in a complex organization than as autonomous actors reflecting in isolation on the legal issues presented on appeal.

In this review essay, Stearns considers three complementary methodologies for analyzing appellate courts that yield insights of particular interest to lawyers and legal scholars. Such questions include how appellate courts transform preferences into doctrine; the nature of cases that are likely susceptible to further appellate process through en banc, mini-en banc, or Supreme Court review; and how best to evaluate appellate court opinions. While organizational theory provides a useful starting point, Stearns contends that insights drawn from other methodologies, including economics (demonstrating how decentralized informational processes can provide more meaningful data), probability analysis (demonstrating the quality of data drawn from subsets of a larger group), and social choice (demonstrating the nature and limits of group decision making), might prove more fruitful in evaluating at least some of these questions. Stearns concludes that a comprehensive understanding of federal appellate judging requires not only an understanding of the circuit courts' internal organizational structure, but also an analysis of the edifice of circuit court decision making from inside and out.