Comparing Attitudinal and Strategic Accounts of Dissenting Behavior on the U.S. Courts of Appeals


  • Virginia A. Hettinger,

  • Stefanie A. Lindquist,

  • Wendy L. Martinek

  • We would like to thank Harold J. Spaeth, Paul J. Wahlbeck, and Stephen L. Wasby for thoughtfully commenting on earlier versions of this article. We also wish to thank Samuel J. Best, David H. Clark, Steven R. Van Winkle, and three anonymous reviewers for their suggestions. Finally, we wish to thank Sesselja Arnadotir, Paul M. Collins, and Zhaoying Du for their research assistance. Earlier versions of this article were delivered at the 2002 annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association and the Arleen Carlson Symposium on Judicial Decision Making held at the University of Minnesota, February 2003. The order of the authors' names is alphabetical; equal contributions were made by each.

Virginia A. Hettinger is Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Connecticut, 341 Mansfield Road, Storrs, CT 06269-1024 ( Stefanie A. Lindquist is Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-1615 ( Wendy L. Martinek is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Binghamton University, P.O. Box 6000, Binghamton, NY 13902-6000 (


Students of judicial behavior have increasingly turned to strategic accounts to understand judicial decision making. Scholarship on the Supreme Court and state high courts suggests that the decision to dissent is better understood in light of strategic considerations rather than simply reflecting ideological disagreement. We investigate whether these findings comport with behavior by judges on the U.S. Courts of Appeals. We develop a spatial model of the decision to dissent that incorporates both attitudinal and strategic elements and subject this model to empirical analysis. We find that ideological disagreement between a judge and the majority opinion writer is a more persuasive explanation of the decision to dissent than a strategic account in which a judge conditions a dissent on whether circuit intervention would obtain the judge's preferred outcome. Though we do not discount the existence of other types of strategic behavior on the Courts of Appeals, our research suggests that strategic accounts of dissenting behavior are not generalizable to all courts.