Gillespie, William Lee
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Employing principal agent theory as a heuristic, I examine whether the U.S. Courts of Appeals influence the exercise of judicial discretion at the district court level in sentencing decisions, specifically focusing on downward departures from the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The results of the legal analysis indicate that, prior to Koon v. U.S,. 518 U.S. 81 (1996), decisions of the U.S. Courts of Appeals provided meaningful guidance to district courts regarding the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. After the Koon decision, the further development of sentencing caselaw on departures by the Courts of Appeals slowed. The results of the aggregate analysis of federal judicial district departure rates in the 1990’s indicated that an increase in the percentage of judges appointed by Democrats at the circuit or district level increased the frequency with which downward departures were granted at the district level. The aggregate analysis also suggests that the Koon decision contributed to more frequent downward departures being granted by district court judges in years after the decision. Still, downward departures were less likely in districts characterized by high crime rates and dockets dominated by drug cases. A case level analysis of how appellate court treat lower court decisions to deny departures, indicates that “pro-defendant” decisions were more likely in panels made up of judges appointed by Democratic presidents. Sentencing appeals by criminal defendants were less likely to succeed when a female judge participated in making the panel decision. In addition, minority defendants were less likely to prevail when appealing the sentencing decision of the trial court. Thus, the partisan composition of the lower courts affects sentencing even under the guidelines but other factors matter as well.