The common law style of judging appears to be on its way out. Trial courts rarely shape legal policymaking by asserting decisional autonomy through distinguishing, limiting, or criticizing higher court precedent. In an earlier study, we demonstrated the reluctance of lower court judges to assert decisional autonomy by invoking the holding–dicta dichotomy. In this Article, we make use of original empirical research to study the level of deference U.S. district court judges exhibit toward higher courts and whether the level of deference has changed over time. Our analysis of citation behavior over an eighty‐year period reveals a dramatic shift in judges’ practices. In the first fifty years included in our study, district court judges were not notably deferential to either their federal court of appeals or the U.S. Supreme Court. District court judges regularly assessed the relevance and scope of precedents from those higher courts and asserted their prerogative to disregard many of them. Since then, judges have become far more likely to treat a given higher court precedent as dispositive. In so doing, lower courts have embraced a hierarchical view of judicial authority at odds with the common law style of judging. The causes of this shift are multifold and likely permanent; we discuss several of them, including dramatic changes in legal research, the proliferation of law clerks throughout the legal system, the growing docket of lower court judges, the growth of the administrative state, and the Supreme Court’s increasing embrace of judicial hierarchy.
The Vanishing Common Law Judge?
- Neal Devins & David Klein
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- Sandra Day O’Connor Professor of Law, Robert E. and Elizabeth S. Scott Research Professor of Law, Professor of Government, William & Mary Law School; Professor of Political Science and Department Head, Eastern Michigan University.