Dissertation Summary

What are the causes and consequences of opinion language within the U.S. federal judiciary? The burgeoning literature on judicial opinion writing has found evidence of language borrowing, strategic opinion formation, and consequences for bureaucratic implementation. Still, this scholarship has not coalesced toward an over-arching understanding of judicial writing. My dissertation takes advantage of this scholarly void by identifying the opportunities and constraints that judges face in crafting their opinions. Across three separate applications, I argue that federal circuit court judges are highly strategic in their opinion language. That is to say that judges consider hierarchical and horizontal constraints, and how their opinion language can induce downstream compliance. To achieve this, I collected over 50,000 U.S. circuit court opinions (2000-2010), which I utilize for text analysis to generate measures of writing characteristics. Then, in the first chapter, I examine how circuit judges write their opinions strategically, especially concerning Supreme Court preferences. Second, I develop writing scores for U.S. circuit judges, from which I examine deviations in style given collegial interactions. Third, I study the impact of judges' opinions on how district court judges implement legal rules.

Chapter 1

“Strategic Opinion Language on the U.S. Courts of Appeals.” Conditionally accepted at Journal of Law & Courts.

What strategies do judges employ when they anticipate review? Constrained judges behave strategically by using particular instruments – like language complexity – when authoring opinions. Prior studies suggest judges use complexity in anticipation of legislative hostility. Similarly, the threat of review and reversal may spur opinion complexity. This study examines variations in circuit court opinions resulting from precedent treatment and Supreme Court preferences. When a circuit negatively treats a Supreme Court precedent that the justices prefer or a circuit positively treats a precedent the justices dislike, opinion complexity should increase. These hypotheses find support, suggesting that circuits strategically insulate using opinion complexity.

Chapter 2

“Collegial Politics and Opinion Writing on the U.S. Courts of Appeals: Dissuading Dissent through Writing Accommodations.”

Do judges alter their opinion language to accommodate ideologically distant colleagues? Extant research on the Courts of Appeals suggests that potential whistle-blower judges can moderate circuit panel decisions. The influence of the circuit opinion author over a potentially divided panel is less clear. This paper turns focus toward the majority opinion as a strategic instrument used to bargain with ideologically distant and non-co-partisan colleagues. I develop measures of central tendency for circuit judges' opinion writing styles, from which opinion authors deviate to accommodate their colleagues. An authoring judge's deviations in opinion writing represent an opportunity to achieve a unanimous panel decision. Using a data-set of over 50,000 circuit opinions from 2000 to 2010, the hypothesis of accommodation through opinion language finds empirical support. This suggests that an opinion author's accommodation efforts might lower the time and resource costs for potential dissenters.