Ideological Voting on Federal Courts of Appeals: A Preliminary Investigation

For many decades, the United States has been conducting an extraordinary natural experiment: Randomly assigned three-judge panels on courts of appeals produce extensive evidence of the effect of judicial ideology on judges’ votes. If the political party of the appointing president is treated as a rough proxy for ideology, then it becomes possible to test three hypotheses: (a) a judge’s votes, in ideologically contested areas, can be predicted by the party of the appointing president; (b) a judge’s ideological tendency, in such areas, will be amplified if the panel has two other judges appointed by an appointing president of the same political party; and (c) a judge’s ideological tendency, in such areas, will be dampened if the panel has no other judge appointed by an appointing president of the same political party. All three hypotheses are confirmed in many areas, including affirmative action, campaign finance, sex discrimination, sexual harassment, piercing the corporate veil, disability discrimination, race discrimination, and review of environmental regulations. An important implication is that panel composition has a strong effect on likely outcomes, thus creating extremely serious problems for the rule of law. Taken as a whole, the evidence suggests that judges frequently issue collegial concurrences, that is, concurrences produced by the unanimous views of the other judges on the panel, and that judges are subject to group polarization, by which groups of like-minded people go to extremes. Notably, all three hypotheses are rejected in the areas of federalism, criminal appeals, and takings of private property, because Republican and Democratic appointees vote essentially alike. In the areas of abortion and capital punishment, the first hypothesis is confirmed, but the second and third are rejected, because judges vote their convictions, and are not affected by the composition of the panel. Disaggregating the data by circuit allows courts of appeals to be ranked along an ideological spectrum; it also shows striking differences between Republican appointees and Democratic appointees on different circuits. Normative implications are briefly explored.

The Federal Common Law Origins of Judicial Jurisdiction: Implications for Modern Doctrine

The Supreme Court’s attempt in Pennoyer v. Neff to graft federal common law jurisdictional rules onto the Due Process Clause has proven problematic. Although the jurisdictional rules have changed significantly since that decision, contemporary federal limitations on state court jurisdiction continue to reflect their common law origins. Oblivious to the origins of such jurisdictional rules, the Supreme Court has struggled in recent years to explain them in due process terms, unable to construct a due process model that can adequately explain the elements of interstate federalism in current jurisdictional doctrine. Nor will the Court ever be able to fully explain in due process terms rules formulated primarily to vindicate structural values rather than individual rights.

Several commentators have suggested that the Court resolve this dissonance by taking seriously due process as the sole source of authority for the jurisdictional rules and jettisoning all elements that do not fit within the due process model. Such a solution would, however, unnecessarily deny the Court the flexibility to formulate optimal jurisdictional rules. This Article argues that the better course would be to recognize constitutional structure as the primary source of authority for federal common law restrictions on state court jurisdiction, with due process imposing only “modest” restrictions akin to the constitutional restrictions on state choice of law authority. Either of these alternatives is far superior to current doctrine, which erroneously assigns interstate federalism content to a due process source of authority. This mismatch is primarily responsible for the incoherence that plagues personal jurisdiction doctrine. More significantly, because the core restrictions on state court jurisdiction are mistakenly thought to be mandated by a constitutional provision protecting individual liberty interests, current doctrine illegitimately prevents Congress from remedying serious deficiencies in our interstate system of justice, such as the difficulty in obtaining and enforcing child-support judgments.

Constitutional Decision Rules

Increasingly, constitutional theorists are turning attention away from the modalities of constitutional interpretation (text, history, structure, etc.) and toward judicial outputs that, while featuring in constitutional adjudication, are something other than a court’s determination of what the Constitution means. We might say that theorists are focusing less on constitutional meaning, more on constitutional doctrine. Despite this happy shift in emphasis, our collective understanding of the conceptual structure of constitutional doctrine remains woefully underdeveloped. For many, doctrine remains a conceptually undifferentiated mass of principles, reasons, tests, and frameworks. This is unfortunate, for no body of knowledge can long advance without self-critical classification. It is time, accordingly, to develop a functional taxonomy of constitutional doctrine. 

This Article takes a first and partial stab at such a taxonomy by distinguishing two components of judge-announced constitutional doctrine: statements of what the Court takes the Constitution to mean and instructions directing judges how to determine whether that meaning is complied with. Coining terms, I call the first type of doctrine a constitutional operative proposition, and the second type a constitutional decision rule. Drawing from such important recent Supreme Court decisions as Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett and Dickerson v. United States, this Article contends that vastly many constitutional doctrines are better understood not as judicial interpretations of the Constitution (operative propositions) but, rather, as instructions regarding how to decide whether the operative propositions are satisfied (decision rules). And it argues that recognizing the difference is likely to have broad consequences. 

For example, courts will better understand their own doctrines—better enabling them to sensibly revise and refine them—if they appreciate the respects in which a given doctrine communicates a decision rule rather than an operative proposition. Perhaps, say, operative propositions deserve greater stare decisis weight than do decision rules. Furthermore, this taxonomic distinction bears upon Congress’s role in constitutional law-making. Although scholars frequently debate how much deference courts should accord Congress’s constitutional interpretations, that is an infelicitous formulation of the issue. As Richard Fallon has recently taught, the truer, broader question concerns what role Congress should have in constitutional implementation. And judge-made constitutional decision rules may be congressionally defeasible where judicial operative propositions are not. 

Discrete payoffs from the operative proposition/decision rule distinction are valuable. But to focus narrowly on them risks missing the forest for the trees. Fundamentally, this Article offers an explicit (though partial) conceptualization of the logical structure of constitutional law—a conceptualization bearing a family resemblance to Monaghan’s work on constitutional common law, Sager’s exploration of underenforced constitutional norms, Strauss’s defense of prophylactic rules, and Fallon’s focus on constitutional implementation, yet reducible to none of them. This novel conceptualization makes better sense of much of contemporary constitutional scholarship and of many of the Supreme Court’s most significant decisions. No doubt considerable distance toward a complete and precise taxonomy remains. But even incremental advances in detailing the conceptual map of constitutional adjudication can purchase large improvements in our ability to negotiate the terrain.