In a prior post, we found that the Sixth Circuit reverses each federal district court at significantly different rates in civil (including prisoner) cases. The results were so surprising – cases originating in some districts were almost twice as likely to be reversed as cases from other districts – that we decided to run the numbers for another two year stretch. We also looked at the reversal rates for the individual judges in each district.
The results for each districts were generally consistent with our prior post. The Eastern and Western districts of Michigan, and the Eastern and Middle districts of Tennessee were still reversed the most (around 21% of the time). The Western District of Tennessee and the Southern District of Ohio had the lowest reversal rates, with the federal district courts of Kentucky close behind. The Northern District of Ohio was close to the average reversal rate of 17% for that two-year period.
The differences in reversal rates for individual district judges were much more variable. The Sixth Circuit reversed roughly one out of every ten non-criminal appeals for the vast majority of district judges. As would be expected, judges in Michigan and Tennessee had their decisions overturned more frequently. About a third of the total reversals resulted from the decisions of a relatively small group of judges. In one two-year period, just eight district judges authored roughly a quarter of the reversals handed down by the Sixth Circuit in civil and prisoner cases.
But don’t think that the Sixth Circuit keeps tabs on certain district judges. Most of the oft-reversed judges only had a year or two of bad luck before the Sixth Circuit and were soon back to the average reversal rate of their colleagues. And even the most frequently-reversed district judges had just twelve appealable decisions reversed in that four-year period – out of many hundreds of such decisions in civil and prisoner cases.
Based on our limited analysis, the cost-benefit calculation for whether to take an appeal in a civil case should rest more on the district’s overall reversal rate rather than the rate (or counsel’s perception of that rate) for an individual judge. The facts and law of an individual appeal, of course, remain far more important than any general statistics for making decisions about an appeal.
Thanks again goes to Lauren Henderson, a law clerk at Squire Sanders, for her work in providing the data for this post.