The federal courts of appeals embrace the ideal that judges are committed to rule of law norms, collegiality, and judicial independence. Whatever else divides them, these judges generally agree that partisan identity has no place on the bench. Consequently, when a court of appeals sits “en banc,” (i.e. collectively) the party affiliations of the three-judge panel under review should not matter. Starting in the 1980s, however, partisan ideology has grown increasingly important in the selection of federal appellate judges. It thus stands to reason (and several high-profile modern examples illustrate) that today’s en banc review could be used as a weapon by whatever party has appointed the most judges on any particular circuit. A weaponized en banc reflects more than just ideological differences between judges. We define the phrase to capture a “team mentality” on the courts of appeals – an us versus them – where the judges vote in blocs aligned by the party of the President who appointed them and use en banc review to reverse panels composed of members from the other team.
In this article, we test whether en banc review is now or ever has been weaponized. We make use of an original data set – the most comprehensive one of which we are aware – that tracks en banc decisions over six decades. Our findings are surprising in two very different ways. The bulk of our data indicates that rule of law norms are deeply embedded. From the 1960s through 2017, en banc review seems to have developed some sort of immunity from partisan behavior over time, and we unpack potential reasons why. But that important and long-lasting immunity could now be in danger. Our data from 2018-2020 show a dramatic and statistically significant surge in behavior consistent with the weaponizing of en banc. It is too soon to tell whether this is a temporary change or an inflection point indicating a more permanent shift. We consider both possibilities and, in so doing, highlight the critical role that en banc review plays in ascertaining judicial commitment to rule of law norms. The time may soon be upon us to confront the cost of en banc review in a regime where party identity frequently trumps other judicial impulses.