The Disavowal of Decisionism in American Law: Political Motivation in the Judiciary

Daniel L. Chen, and Eric Reinhart


The impartiality and apolitical nature of the American judiciary are key to its legitimacy and the liberal constitutional legal system it supports. Though less than 1% of U.S. Federal judges admit to political motivations for retirement or resignation, our research suggests these influences are more widespread. Examining data from 1802 to 2019, we found 11% of retirements and 23% of resignations from the U.S. Courts of Appeals may be linked to political cycles. Judges are less likely to retire before a Presidential election when the President is from a different party than their appointing party, and more likely to resign after the election if the President is from their appointing party. These politically motivated exits have grown, accounting for 14% of retirements since 1975, which points to a more politically charged and polarized judiciary. Previous studies relying on self-reports or annual analyses have missed these political dynamics in judges’ departure timing. Our quarter-to-election level analysis reveals that significant decisions by Federal judges may often be influenced by unconscious bias or conscious partisan loyalty, both of which challenge the idea of judicial neutrality and the common law precedents judges must uphold. Our findings support growing concerns about undemocratic political power being exercised through the courts, giving rise to juristocracy – the practice of engaging in politics under the guise of legal proceedings.


judicial tenure; political polarization; juristocracy; legitimacy; court reform;


Published in

Review of Law and Economics, 2024, forthcoming