Scholars have long asserted that social structure is an important feature of a variety of societal institutions. As part of a larger effort to develop a fully integrated model of judicial decision making, we argue that social structure—operationalized as the professional and social connections between judicial actors—partially directs outcomes in the hierarchical federal judiciary.

Since different social structures impose dissimilar consequences upon outputs, the precursor to evaluating the doctrinal consequences that a given social structure imposes is a descriptive effort to characterize its nature. Given the difficulty associated with obtaining appropriate data for federal judges, it is necessary to rely upon a proxy measure to paint a picture of the social landscape. In the aggregate, we believe the flow of law clerks reflects a proxy for social and professional linkages between jurists. Having collected available information for all federal judicial law clerks employed by an Article III judge during the “natural” Rehnquist Court (1995-2004), we use these nearly 20,000 clerk events to craft a series of network based visualizations.

Using network analysis, our visualizations and subsequent analytics provide insight into the path of peer effects in the federal judiciary. For example, we find the distribution of “degrees” is consistent with the power law distribution implying the social structure is dictated by a small number of socially prominent actors. Drawing from the complex systems literature, our findings suggest federal judicial actors self-organize at positions of criticality, possibly through Yule’s Law. In sum, if social structure “matters” then our results have significant implications for doctrinal phase transition and the “evolution” of the law.


Jurisprudence | Law and Society | Public Law and Legal Theory

Date of this Version

March 2008