Judges matter. The opinions of a few impact the lives of many. Judges romanticize their own impartiality, but apathy in the face of systems of oppression favors the status quo and clears the way for conservative agendas to take root. The lifetime appointments of federal judges, the deliberate weaponization of the bench by reactionary opponents of the New Deal and progressive social movements, and the sheer inertia of judicial self-restraint have led to the conservative capture of the courts. By contrast, empathy for the oppressed and downtrodden renders substantive justice possible and leaves room for unsuccessful litigants to accept unfavorable outcomes. But some judges—movement judges—bring more to the bench than just empathy, raging against systemic injustice with an understanding of its burdens on real human lives. This Article argues that we need movement judges to realize the abolitionist and democracy-affirming potential of the Constitution. Although the judiciary is often described as the “least democratic” of the three branches of government, it has the potential to be the most democratic. With movement judges, the judiciary can become a force for “We the People.”
District attorneys are responsible for the vast majority of criminal prosecutions in the United States, and most of them are elected by the public from prosecutorial
districts. Yet these districts are massively malapportioned, giving rural, dispropor-
tionately white voters significantly more voting power over their district attorneys
than urban voters, who are more likely to be voters of color. At the same time, our
district attorney system is characterized by the sorts of political process failures that
both triggered the Supreme Court’s Apportionment Revolution—requiring that leg-
islative and executive districts comply with one-person, one-vote—and justify judi-
cial intervention in other voting rights contexts. This Note argues that extending
one-person, one-vote to prosecutorial districts would meaningfully address
prosecutorial political process failure and have a number of salutary effects on our
democracy: It would rebalance the distribution of voters’ influence over district
attorneys, producing salutary downstream effects on our criminal justice system; it
may increase challenger rates, leading to healthier levels of prosecutorial demo-
cratic competition; and it would further core democratic norms, including respect
for the equal dignity of voters.
The federal courts of appeals embrace the ideal that judges are committed to rule-of-law norms, collegiality, and judicial independence. Whatever else divides them, these judges generally agree that partisan identity has no place on the bench. Consequently, when a court of appeals sits “en banc,” (i.e., collectively) the party affiliations of the three-judge panel under review should not matter. Starting in the 1980s, however, partisan ideology has grown increasingly important in the selection of federal appellate judges. It thus stands to reason—and several high-profile modern examples illustrate—that today’s en banc review could be used as a weapon by whatever party has appointed the most judges on any particular circuit. A weaponized en banc reflects more than just ideological differences between judges. We define the phrase to capture a “team mentality” on the courts of appeals—an us versus them—where the judges vote in blocs aligned with the party of the President who appointed them and use en banc review to reverse panels composed of members from the other team.
In this Article, we test whether en banc review is now or has ever been weaponized. We make use of an original data set—the most comprehensive one of which we are aware—that tracks en banc decisions over six decades. Our findings are surprising in two very different ways. The bulk of our data indicates that rule-of-law norms are deeply embedded. From the 1960s through 2017, en banc review seems to have developed some sort of immunity from partisan behavior over time, and we unpack potential reasons why. But that important and long-lasting immunity could now be in danger. Our data from 2018–2020 show a dramatic and statistically significant surge in behavior consistent with the weaponizing of en banc review. It is too soon to tell whether this is a temporary change or an inflection point indicating a more permanent shift. We consider both possibilities and, in so doing, highlight the critical role that en banc review plays in ascertaining judicial commitment to rule-of-law norms. The time may soon be upon us to confront the cost of en banc review in a regime where party identity frequently trumps other judicial impulses.
In this Lecture, I offer my own definition of judicial activism: In deciding a case, a court or judge engages in judicial activism when the court or judge eschews the use of a judicial decisional tool traditionally employed to adjudicate that type of case. In other words, judicial activism involves throwing a long-recognized decisional tool—or, in Justice Marshall’s words, “mediating principle”—out of the judicial toolkit. Under my definition, for example, the Supreme Court would engage in judicial activism if it refused without explanation to apply the doctrine of stare decisis, given that stare decisis stands at the center of the common-law tradition we inherited from England and has been applied since the earliest days of the republic.
Why does such behavior amount to judicial activism? Because refusing to apply a long-recognized mediating principle eliminates a constraint on a court’s exercise of its decisional discretion. When judges refuse to apply a long-standing interpretive tool, they necessarily expand the universe of situations in which they, in Judge Posner’s words, “bring [their] own policy preferences to bear in order to decide the case at hand.”
To be sure, there necessarily are times when judges must rely on their own policy preferences to decide a case. But, from my perspective, simply ignoring without comment a well-established mediating principle generally applicable in the type of case at issue—or justifying the act of discarding a fundamental principle by relying on a legal or policy argument as to the undesirability of that principle—is a fundamentally activist enterprise.
My Lecture will proceed as follows. First, I survey the origin of the term “judicial activism” and the various ways it has been defined by judges and scholars. Those definitions generally fall into two categories: those focused on outcomes and those focused on the process a judge applies in reaching an outcome. Second, I set forth my own definition of judicial activism—which falls into the process category—and explain why I believe that definition gives meaning to the principal concern animating accusations of judicial activism: that the judiciary is stepping outside of its proper role and unjustifiably deciding cases based on its own policy preferences. Third, I explain some means by which activism (as I define it) enters judicial decisionmaking. Finally, I apply my definition to demonstrate why the judicial interpretive methodology of textualism and the recent Supreme Court partisan gerrymandering decision, Rucho v. Common Cause, are stark examples of judicial activist behavior.
IJA Brennan Lecture
This Article considers when optional case citations may do more harm than good. There are valid reasons for citing to non-binding precedent—to promote consistency in the law, for example, or to avoid wasteful redundancy. But unconsidered invocations of non-binding authority may also introduce error into individual opinions and distort the path of the law over time. This Article catalogues such dangerous citations as used in particular by federal district courts citing to other federal district courts with three goals in mind: to help judges use non-binding authority constructively, to help law clerks think critically about their citation practices, and to help readers of judicial opinions question the rhetoric of constraint.
In mapping these problematic uses of non-binding authority, the Article distinguishes between poorly conceived citations and poorly implemented citations. Poorly conceived citations are those for which non-binding precedent is simply not a useful authority. Examples of poorly conceived citations include reliance on prior opinions to establish facts or the content of another sovereign’s laws. Poorly implemented citations are those for which non-binding precedent may be relevant but should be selected and applied with care. Examples of poorly implemented citations include over-extended analogies and reliance on judge-made tests that are misaligned with the question being evaluated. This catalogue of poorly conceived and poorly implemented citations surfaces some common themes, including the need for better-designed tests and the challenges posed by modern research methods. But dangerous citations are not simply a matter of inadvertence, carelessness, or mistake; they may also be deployed for rhetorical purposes, in particular to signal legitimacy and restraint. The Article thus ends with a warning against “performative judging,” or the use of excessive citations to suggest greater constraint than the law in fact provides. Such citations are dangerous not just for the error they may introduce, but also because they obscure judicial choice and the inherently discretionary nature of judging.
Sandra Mayson, in her article Dangerous Defendants, points out the ways in which pretrial detention on the basis of public safety risk violates the “parity principle”—a measure of decisionmaking fairness that evaluates whether individuals of like risk are treated alike. As Mayson convincingly argues, if public safety risk is what justifies detention of those who have been arrested, it should also justify preventative detention of similarly risky people who remain in the community at large. In other words, merely having a person in custody does not logically change the analysis of the risk they present or what should be done with them.
In this Article, I argue that psychological factors, not assessments of risk, can explain why the parity principle is violated. A person in custody and a person in the community may present the same level of public safety risk, but the human brain typically uses heuristics, not calculations, to make decisions. Our brains want to minimize losses and regret. Whenever something bad happens, our brains automatically generate counterfactuals—the “if only I had done X” hypotheticals that allow us to imagine (and believe in) a world where tragedy would have been avoided. Counterfactuals that eliminate harm are easy to generate when someone is in custody, but hard to generate when someone is at large, and our brains conflate ease of generation with real-world probability. Counterfactuals, then, may help explain why the pretrial, public safety default seems to be to keep someone locked up, “just in case”—and why this desire is resistant to information and argument.
This Article adds an important dimension to the ongoing debates about whether judicial discretion or actuarial tools should govern pretrial release decisions. Judicial discretion may be biased towards incapacitation by operating on the “gut level” of psychology—even if the harms of detention outweigh the benefits. Across the United States, jails contain thousands of prisoners who could be released safely, who could resume work and the rest of their lives, but who remain incarcerated because of the fear that one of them might commit a sensational crime. The insights of this Article may also apply more generally to a host of similar problems, including parole release, executive clemency, diversion programs, and the removal of children from potentially abusive parents, and suggest that policymakers and reformers be cognizant of the way in which current criminal justice thinking is short-sighted, overly reactive, and biased towards incapacitation. By applying theories of the counterfactual proposed by Neal Roese and other behavioral psychologists, the Article provides an explanation for why, even when regulations change, judicial decisions to release arrestees may remain low. It suggests that experimental research specifically targeting judicial counterfactual thinking should be conducted.