Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2019

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

Political Science

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



What are the causes and consequences of opinion language on the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals? Much of the burgeoning literature on judicial opinion writing has utilized data from the Supreme Court to find evidence of language borrowing, strategic opinion formation, and consequences for bureaucratic implementation. Still, this scholarship has, first, not coalesced toward an over-arching understanding of judicial writing, and second, not expanded focus to other U.S. federal judicial actors---especially the circuit courts, which are essentially the court of last resort for nearly all federal litigants. My dissertation takes advantage of this scholarly void by identifying the opportunities and constraints that circuit judges face in crafting their opinions. I argue that circuit court judges are highly strategic in their opinion language. That is to say that judges consider hierarchical and horizontal constraints, and how their opinion language can induce downstream compliance. To achieve this, I collect over 50,000 U.S. circuit court opinions (2000-2010), which I utilize for text analysis to generate two measures of writing style: cognitive complexity and stylistic language. In the first chapter, I establish the theoretical microfoundations regarding opinion writing, after which I present my measures of writing style. The second chapter presents an application utilizing opinion complexity, whereby I show how circuit judges write their opinions strategically, especially concerning Supreme Court preferences. Finally, I utilize both writing style measures in the third chapter, wherein I provide evidence that circuit judges will deviate from their overall writing styles in order to achieve unanimity on a circuit panel, which has broad implications for doctrinal implementation in downstream courts.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

James F. Spriggs II

Committee Members

Cindy Brantmeier, Lee Epstein, Matthew Gabel, Andrew Reeves,


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/ag54-0x84

Available for download on Tuesday, August 15, 2119