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Vanderbilt Law Review

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federal courts, federal judges, judicial politics, judicial decision-making


Courts | Judges | Jurisprudence | Law


Chief judges wield power. Among other things, they control judicial assignments, circulate petitions to their colleagues, and manage internal requests and disputes. When exercising this power, do chiefs seek to serve as impartial court administrators or do they attempt to manufacture case outcomes that reflect their political beliefs? Because chiefs exercise their power almost entirely outside public view, no one knows. No one sees the chief judge change the composition of a panel before it is announced or delay consideration of a petition for en banc review or favor the requests of some colleagues while ignoring those of others. Chiefs do exercise one very public power, however. Chiefs decide when to step down and return to active service, and because their dates of departure determine who will succeed them, they decide who their successors will be. If chiefs are impartial administrators, their departure decisions should not lead systematically to successors who share their political beliefs; if, by contrast, they are purely political actors, their departures should be timed to ensure like-minded successors. Relying on a database that includes all chief circuit judges, we test a strategic departure theory of chief judge tenure. We find little evidence of political motivations. We find instead that chief judges serve shorter terms as dockets grow larger; thus, overwhelming workload may prevent judges from using the office to further policy goals.



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