Comparing Circuits: Are Some U.S. Courts of Appeals More Liberal or Conservative Than Others?


  • An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association. I would like to thank Chris Blake, Suraj Jacobs, Carroll Seron, Steve Wasby, anonymous reviewers, and the editors of the Law & Society Review for comments and suggestions. I thank Rachel Mulheren for her research assistance. Please direct all correspondence to Andreas Broscheid, Department of Political Science, MSC 7705, Harrisonburg, VA 22807; e-mail:


This article investigates possible ideological differences between circuits of the U.S. Courts of Appeals. It looks at the distribution of three-judge panel ideologies on the circuits and at differences in decisionmaking patterns, testing several theoretical approaches to circuit differences: the attitudinalist approach, arguing that different judicial ideologies account for intercircuit differences; historical-institutionalist approaches that argue that circuit norms lead to differences in the proportion of conservative decisions and in the effects of judicial ideologies; and the rational-choice institutionalist argument that overall circuit preferences constrain three-judge panel decisions through the en banc process. Using a multilevel logit model, the study finds some support for the attitudinalist and historical-institutionalist accounts of circuit differences. It also finds that intercircuit ideological differences contribute comparatively little to the prediction of appeals court outcomes.