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The Hierarchical Influence of Courts of Appeals on District Courts

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What factors explain when federal trial court judges will be influenced and constrained by their direct superiors in the judicial hierarchy? To empirically test this hierarchical relationship, this study utilizes an original database of cases terminated in 29 federal district courts from 2000 to 2004 and a research design that naturally incorporates hierarchical interactions through a focus on cases that were appealed to the U.S. courts of appeal and later reversed and remanded. After controlling for litigant, judge, political, and case characteristics, the results indicate that the likelihood of a district court case having an altered outcome after circuit court intervention is greatly affected by the content and context of the supervising circuit panel’s opinion. These results have implications for the function and constraining ability of the judicial hierarchy and provide new insight into how judging significantly differs by court level.

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