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Learning through Litigation: How Judicial Process Shapes Decision Making in the U.S. District Courts

  • Author(s): Hubert, William Ryan
  • Advisor(s): Gailmard, Sean
  • et al.
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The U.S. District Courts resolve the vast majority of cases in the U.S. federal legal system, but we know much less about them than we do about the U.S. Courts of Appeals or the U.S. Supreme Court. The disproportionate focus on appellate courts has reinforced the perception that courts are primarily policymaking institutions. However, district courts rarely make new law, and are mostly at the front line of law enforcement. In the aggregate, the quality of their decisions on individual cases determines the degree to which laws are applied fairly and consistently. However, their work is not trivial, and the quality of outcomes depends on whether district judges have sufficient incentives to produce high quality decisions. Indeed, district courts are the primary fact-finders in legal disputes. Judges often have to cajole litigants, witnesses and attorneys into being forthcoming about what they know. They have to rule on a flurry of motions about what information can be discovered or admitted as evidence. District judges are therefore intricately involved in creating the case records, which means that they must engage in some costly effort to figure out the facts of cases they oversee.

A district judge's work on any given case constitutes a process of "learning through litigation." The importance of this process for the enforcement of laws is the point of departure for this dissertation. In a series of three papers, I analyze the agency problem confronting appellate courts: how can district judges be induced to undertake maximum effort to learn the facts and the law pertaining to the legal cases before them when this effort is costly, but imperfectly observed by principals in the appellate courts? Moreover, what are the consequences for litigants (and society more broadly) of district court institutions and practices that serve to induce effort and compliance by district judges?

To address these questions, I analyze three original models of district court decision making. The models present three main takeaways: (1) due to their informational advantage, deferring to district judges is often optimal for appellate courts, even when those judges are biased; (2) dispassionate judges are often harder to motivate to exert effort to resolve cases than either activist or biased judges; (3) endogenous appeals by litigants can provide perverse incentives to unbiased "legalist" judges to tilt judgments toward powerful litigants. Moreover, the models I study in these papers offer observationally equivalent explanations for commonly observed empirical phenomena, such as compliance with legal doctrine and in-group bias. Taken together, the models underscore the important role that courts play in enforcing laws effectively and accurately. Indeed, if there is significant variation in district judges' effort to resolve cases, then laws will be enforced inconsistently. Perhaps more insidiously, the results suggest that low quality decision making by district judges may affect different kinds of litigants differently.

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This item is under embargo until April 2, 2021.