Working paper

Motivated Reasoning in the Field: Partisanship in Precedent, Prose, Vote, and Retirement in U.S. Circuit Courts, 1800-2013

Elliott Ash, Daniel L. Chen, and Wei Lu


We document motivated reasoning among U.S. judges. We employ a supervised learning approach to measure partisanship of text and citations of circuit court opinions. We find persistent but low partisanship of language overall, with the notable exception of civil rights and First Amendment, which liberals and conservatives have mobilized in certain periods. Citations display a significant level of partisanship and increase over time. We also document an increase in vote partisanship–dissenting only against judges appointed by the opposing party’s president. We show an increase in partisan retirement–strategically timing retirements that sclerotize the judiciary and stymie democratic churn. Finally, we show that motivated reasoning grows with judicial experience, but not age, and is more pronounced for Republican appointees.

See also

Published in

IAST working paper, n. 18-89, June 2018