Judicial identity, politics, and class certification

Law profs Stephen Burbank and Sean Farhang have written Politics, Identity, and Class Certification on the U.S. Courts of Appeals, which asks whether there are associations between personal characteristics of appellate judges and the party of the presidents who appointed those judges, among other things, and class-certification decisions. Here is the abstract:

This article draws on novel data and presents the results of the first empirical analysis of how potentially salient characteristics of Court of Appeals judges influence precedential lawmaking on class certification under Rule 23. We find that the partisan composition of the panel (measured by the party of the appointing president) has a very strong association with certification outcomes, with all-Democratic panels having more than double the certification rate of all-Republican panels in precedential cases. We also find that the presence of one African American on a panel, and the presence of two females (but not one), is associated with pro-certification outcomes. Contrary to conventional wisdom in the scholarship on diversity on the bench, such diversity may be consequential to lawmaking beyond policy areas conventionally thought to be of particular concern to women and racial minorities.

Class action doctrine is a form of trans-substantive procedural law that traverses many policy areas. The effects of gender and racial diversity on the bench, through making more precertification law, radiate widely across the legal landscape, influencing implementation of consumer, securities, labor and employment, antitrust, prisoner’s rights, public benefits, and many other areas of law. The results highlight how the consequences of diversity extend beyond conceptions of “women’s issues” or “minority issues.” The results also suggest the importance of exploring the effects of diversity on trans-substantive procedural law more generally.

Our findings on gender panel effects in particular are novel in the literature on panel effects and the literature on gender and judging. Past work focusing on substantive antidiscrimination law found that one woman can influence the votes of males in the majority (mirroring what we find with respect to African American judges in class certification decisions). These results allowed for optimism that the panel structure — which threatens to dilute the influence of underrepresented groups on the bench because they are infrequently in the panel majority — actually facilitates minority influence, whether through deliberation, cue taking, bargaining, or some other mechanism.

Our gender results are quite different and more normatively troubling. We observe that women have more pro-certification preferences based on outcomes when they are in the majority. However, panels with one female are not more likely to yield pro-certification outcomes. Female majority panels occur at sharply lower rates than women’s percentage of judgeships, and thus certification doctrine underrepresents their preferences relative to their share of judgeships.

Our suggestions regarding mechanisms that may help to explain these results are speculative and tentative. Recent scholarship on the gender gap in political discussions and decision-making illuminates some disquieting possibilities. If the dynamics identified by this research are at play, one possibility is that a female judge in the minority who vigorously advocates for a preferred outcome is less successful because, as a panel minority in a substantive domain that, unlike anti-discrimination law, does not elicit gender-based deference, she is regarded as less authoritative and influential. Another is that the reinforcement of a female majority increases her propensity to advocate preferences that differ systematically from those of her male colleagues in areas without obvious gender salience.

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