Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy > Vol 3 > Issue 2

Appellate Court Influence over District Courts in the United States

Michael P. Olson, Department of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis, USA, , Albert H. Rivero, Department of Politics, University of Virginia, USA,
Suggested Citation
Michael P. Olson and Albert H. Rivero (2022), "Appellate Court Influence over District Courts in the United States", Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy: Vol. 3: No. 2, pp 183-213.

Publication Date: 28 Jun 2022
© 2022 M. P. Olson and A. H. Rivero
Judicial politicsdistrict courtsfederal courtsjudicial hierarchy


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In this article:
Independence and Hierarchy in the U.S. District Courts 
Data and Empirical Design 
District Judges React to Circuit Court Ideology, on Average 
Progressive Ambition, Workload, or Neither? 


The vast majority of U.S. federal litigation occurs in U.S. District Courts, which are the first—and for most, the last—courts in which a case is heard. While these lower courts’ judges are insulated from outside influence by their life tenure, they may have incentives to heed the preferences of those above them in the judicial hierarchy. Using data on politicized district court decisions and the ideological preferences of circuit court judges in a two-way fixed effects design, we show that district court judges are responsive to changes in the ideological composition of the circuit court above them. We show that lower court responsiveness is increasing in the rate of appellate review and reversal that these courts face. We find no evidence, however, that this responsiveness is motivated by workload reduction or progressive ambition.