The Incidence and Structure of Conflict on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit



In 1982, Congress established the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, a specialized court, with the objective of reducing judicial conflict and harmonizing circuit law in specific policy areas of special complexity. This article examines the incidence and determinants of judicial conflict on the U.S. courts of appeals, focusing specifically on the Federal Circuit. Using international trade and customs regulation cases decided during the 1982 to 1995 terms, the analysis reviews three possible explanations of judicial conflict: policy-oriented, sociolegal, and organizational. The analysis shows that conflict appears in 8.4 percent of the trade and customs regulation decisions rendered by the Federal Circuit during the period of study. The policy direction of Federal Circuit decisions and the court’s hierarchical relationship with lower specialized courts provide the strongest explanation for the emergence of conflict on the court. Organizational factors such as panel composition evinced rather anemic explanatory capacity. The results raise an important functional similarity between the Federal Circuit and the generalist courts of appeals. Contrary to the laments of legal practitioners that conflict on the Federal Circuit is excessive relative to conflict on the generalist circuit courts, this analysis finds little support for that claim. Rather, the level of overt conflict on the court is actually low and corroborates conflict levels that have been reported for other U.S. courts of appeals.