Harold J. Krent and Scott Morris

Volume 67, Issue 2, 367-406

This study of federal court decisionmaking asks whether characteristics of a jurist including age, race, gender, and work experience, can affect results in the context of the nation’s most frequently litigated administrative law dispute—social security disability claims. SSDI cases by and large are similar, turning most frequently on claims of mental illness and muscular skeletal pain. Thus, there is ample room for discretion among ALJs and federal judges in determining whether an applicant is entitled to benefits.

The results are remarkable both in what they showed and did not show. First, decisionmaking patterns among district court judges and magistrates both reveal the same kind of inconsistencies that plague ALJ adjudication more generally. The results of an SSDI appeal might turn more on the hap of which judge or magistrate is slated to review the appeal than on the merits of the case.

Second, if the cases are similar, the question arises as to what explains the difference in outcomes. Again, the results are striking in that no correlation can be drawn between results and the race, gender, seniority, and job experience of the jurist. Nor can they be explained by geography or the percentage of disabled within the region.

Third, although sociological attributes did not explain much of the variation in resolution of the cases, we noted a substantial correlation between remand rates and the circuit in which the judges and magistrates sat. Remand rates from both judges and magistrates in the Tenth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits, for instance, were almost double those from judges and magistrates in the First and Fourth Circuits. The statistics strongly suggest that the “culture’ within a particular judicial circuit makes a substantial difference in such decisionmaking.

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