The Small Group Context: Designated District Court Judges in the U.S. Courts of Appeals


  • The views expressed in this article reflect those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation, though Martinek gratefully acknowledges the support of the Foundation. We thank Chris Nicholson for his exemplary research assistance and Eileen Braman for first-rate comments on this research. We also thank Harold J. Spaeth, Raymond V. Carman, Jr., and participants in the Comparative-American Workshop at Binghamton University for their insights on this and related work. An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the Southern Political Science Association and the comments and suggestions made by the participants at that panel significantly improved this research. Naturally, we remain solely responsible for any errors contained herein.

Paul M. Collins Jr., Department of Political Science, University of North Texas, 125 Wooten Hall, PO Box 305340, Denton, TX 76203-5340; email: Collins is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas; Martinek is Associate Professor of Political Science at Binghamton University and Program Officer for the Law and Social Sciences Program of the National Science Foundation.


Decision making in the U.S. courts of appeals occurs primarily in three-judge panels. A substantial number of cases are decided by panels that include a judge who is a district court judge serving temporarily on the appeals bench. This means that court of appeals decision making is often a function of small groups with temporary members. Here, we examine whether designated district court judges behave differently than their court of appeals colleagues when they cast their votes in cases they are deciding as members of three-judge appellate panels. In doing so, we suggest a profitable direction for theory building vis-à-vis judicial decision making. Our analysis of the ideological direction of the votes judges cast, as well as the variance in those votes, indicates that judges on three-judge panels are influenced by the preferences of their fellow panelists, and that designated district court judges, while no more variable than their court of appeals colleagues, are more susceptible to the influence of their peers than are regular members of the courts of appeals in a nontrivial number of cases.