The federal courts of appeals are in the midst of a crisis. The exploding volume of cases in those courts and the increasing complexity of the law present a real threat to the quality of appellate justice. Borrowing Adam Smith’s basic insight about the division of labor, many commentators have argued that the federal appellate courts might manage this crisis through greater specialization. The particular mode of specialization that has come into favor is the establishment of appellate courts with limited and exclusive jurisdiction over a set of subject matters. An example of such a court is the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and the apparent success of this court in the rationalization and harmonization of patent law has engendered proposals for many other specialized courts of appeals.
However, there are a host of problems with relying on such “specialized courts,” including judicial “tunnel vision,” the lack of cross-pollination of legal ideas, judicial capture by special interests, and excessive judicial policymaking. Commentators often defend their proposals for more specialized courts by pointing to the success that some European countries have had with highly specialized appellate judiciaries. But the apparent success of the European experience with specialized courts may be peculiar to the civil law philosophy of judging; borrowing a distinctly civil law solution for the American common law landscape may not be successful.
This Note proposes a different mode of specialization: staffing cases with a mix of expert and non-expert judges. The German Constitutional Court has used a similar system for many years. Since this solution is being borrowed from a constitutional court, which is far more like an American court than a civil law court, problems of translation are reduced. The proposal balances our desire for generalist judges with the need for judicial expertise as law grows increasingly complex. It helps solve the problem of exploding caseloads by allowing the federal appellate courts to take on more judges without sacrificing intra-circuit coherence of federal law. It achieves the goal of expertise by leveraging the differing abilities and interests of appeals court judges. While doing all this, the proposal also avoids many of the problems with the use of specialized courts of limited, exclusive jurisdiction.