Getting Their Way: Bias and Deference to Trial Courts

2019. American Journal of Political Science. Volume 63, Number 3, pp. 706-718.

How much do trial judges influence the law in the United States? I analyze a model of adjudication by a trial judge who engages in fact-finding before deciding a case, but whose decision may be reversed. The model makes three broad points. First, it provides an informational rationale for ex post deference to biased trial judges that does not require an ex ante commitment by an appellate court to a standard of review. Second, it shows how procedural discretion can bring biased trial judges’ rulings closer to appellate doctrine despite enabling trial judges to “get their way” more often. Third, de facto law as represented by trial judges’ case-by-case adjudication will differ substantially from de jure law. As long as there are not too many extremist trial judges, de facto law will reflect the predispositions of trial judges, not legal doctrine.

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