Vol. 26 No 8 (December 2016) pp. 155-156

THE VIEW FROM THE BENCH AND CHAMBERS: EXAMINING JUDICIAL PROCESS AND DECISION MAKING ON THE U.S. COURTS OF APPEALS, by Jennifer Barnes Bowie, Donald R. Songer, and John Szmer. University of Virginia Press, 2014. 296 pp. Hardcover $45.00. ISBN: 978-0813935997.

Reviewed by Virginia Hettinger, Department of Political Science, University of Connecticut. Email:

In The View from the Bench and Chambers: Examining Judicial Process and Decision Making on the U. S. Courts of Appeals, Jennifer Barnes Bowie, Donald Songer, and John Szmer provide the strongest contribution to scholarship on the United States Courts of Appeals that has been offered to date. It provides a rich trove of quantitative and qualitative evidence on decision making, agenda setting, oral arguments, and opinion assignment assembled in one place. The authors use the Courts of Appeals database and other publicly available data sources for their descriptive analysis and quantitative models, but the evidence drawn from formal interviews with 60 judges (and informal meetings with many more) is what distinguishes THE VIEW FROM THE BENCH from all other books on the Courts of Appeals. The book is well written and achieves a good balance between accessibility, rigor, and scholarly standards of transparency and documentation. Overall, the authors demonstrate that circuit differences are critical, attitudinal and legal factors are important, and Supreme Court or en banc review is a somewhat predictable, low cost, and a low probability event.

Chapter 1 provides a thorough descriptive introduction to judges on the Courts of Appeals. It covers selection and the related issues of partisanship, ideology, and representation. The authors then document the appellate process, caseload growth, and the mix of issues before these courts. This chapter does not break new theoretical or evidentiary ground. Instead, it provides a solid foundation for readers new to the appellate courts and a refresher for more familiar readers.

Chapter 2 represents the book’s most significant contribution, both substantively and empirically, and its richness paves the way for greater theoretical development in the future. The authors provide detailed explanations of how appeals court judges conduct their work and how they view their colleagues and themselves. The authors document variation in how the circuits have dealt with increasing caseloads by relying on staff attorneys, using procedural terminations, and managing access to oral arguments. The authors present models of opinion assignment and the decision to grant oral arguments. The opinion assignment model combines variables drawn from the extant literature with testable assertions drawn from interviews and provides systematic quantitative analyses of both types of assertions. In contrast, the hypotheses in the oral argument model rely heavily on the interviews and this section may have benefited from a bit more discussion of the agenda setting literature from the United States Supreme Court. Nonetheless, the authors demonstrate that oral arguments are more likely to be granted when non-circuit members participate in the decision, case complexity is higher, and the case involves a civil rights or civil liberties issue.

In Chapter 3, the authors examine disposition time, opinion length, and publication decisions. They again draw heavily on suggestions from the interviews with judges as well as on existing scholarship. Given the large number of judicial vacancies, the reliance on judges sitting by designation, and the growing caseloads faced by many circuits, the findings presented here have important theoretical and policy implications. This chapter and the one before it highlight the importance for scholars who conduct comparisons across courts, especially courts with substantial discretion, to understand that [*156] being granted oral argument or having a published decision in one circuit may mean something very different than it does in another. These chapters improve our understanding of those differences in the Courts of Appeals.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 focus on separate opinion writing, attitudinal and legal influences on decision making, and strategic explanations of decision making, thus traveling ground more familiar ground to judicial politics scholars than the first two substantive chapters. As in the earlier chapters, the authors enhance their discussions of the theoretical expectations with insights from their interviews. The separate opinion analysis in Chapter 4 is innovative because the authors analyze the likelihood of dissent against a base of all cases rather than published decisions, yet their findings are consistent with much of the previous scholarship. Chapter 5 explores the relationship between individual attitudes and liberal votes, while controlling for legal factors. The quantitative analysis reinforces the importance of attitudes, but suggestions from the interviews point to an additional twist: the influence of attitudes appears to be strongest in cases in which there is a dissent. Chapter 6 returns to the question of strategic decision making. Both the qualitative and quantitative evidence against a strategic explanation for Court of Appeals behavior is quite strong in this chapter.

A VIEW FROM THE BENCH AND CHAMBERS provides us with two extraordinarily innovative and thorough chapters that open up much of the black box of Court of Appeals process and behavior. The remaining three substantive chapters contribute to the growing body of the evidence on Court of Appeals decision making and dissenting behavior. This is accomplished through the three standard theoretical approaches to studying judicial behavior. Each of these three chapters improves upon shortcomings of previous studies but reach many of
the same conclusions.

My criticisms of the book are few and mostly limited to the last three chapters. First, despite the exhaustive list of explanatory variables included in the models, the authors offer relatively little substantive interpretation of the findings. Second, although the authors did an excellent job grounding their work in existing scholarship, even readers well-versed in that scholarship would benefit from a more systematic discussion of how their findings and interview-based insights support or challenge previous scholarship. I come away from the book with a sense that much of the previous work on the Courts of Appeals is quite robust even when challenged by the innovations of this book. A more extensive conclusion in each chapter or a short final chapter that makes these connections and draws more focused attention to differences would have been a welcome addition.

A VIEW FROM THE BENCH AND CHAMBERS is an impressive work of scholarship. It belongs on the shelf of every Court of Appeals scholar and it has a place on the syllabus in an upper level undergraduate or graduate course in judicial decision making or judicial process. The book represents the state of the subfield’s knowledge on virtually every salient dimension of Courts of Appeals process and behavior, and it will no doubt continue to influence scholarship on those courts for years to come. But I also anticipate that going forward, its approach – and the questions generated by that approach – will extend beyond the Courts of Appeals and shape inquiry into the lower courts and state courts as well.

© Copyright 2016 by author, Virginia Hettinger.