The Rule of Law: An Examination of Judicial Discretion in Terrorism Appeals
McCann, Wesley Shawn
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Prosecuting terrorism has proven to be difficult for the criminal justice system in recent decades. Moreover, terrorists are qualitatively different than traditional criminals. As a result, certain complexities arise that are particular to terrorism cases. Understanding the criminal justice system's ability to viably and fairly prosecute terrorists is extremely important to scholars, practitioners, and legislators. However, appellate courts serve an important role in examining the procedural and substantive justice of criminal trials. To date, no study has evaluated appellate court discretion in terrorism appeals, as almost every study has solely focused on the trial stage. This study is exploratory in that while the traditional literature focuses only on judicial discretion at the trial level, this study examines panel discretion at the appellate level in terrorism appeals. This study examines all federal terrorism appeals from 1988-2015 in which the defendant was adjudicated via a trial. Trial-level data was obtained from the American Terrorism Study and appellate-level data was collected from Westlaw's legal search engine. This study uses both a qualitative legal analysis and quantitative analyses to study Circuit Court discretion. First, legal analyses were conducted for certain claims brought forth on appeal as well as content analyses of successful appeals. Next, multiple imputation and binary logistic regression were used to examine which factors were the most important in explaining Circuit Court discretion in terrorism appeals. This study found that panel ideology, or the political affiliation of panel members, was significantly related appeal outcomes. This finding is contrary to what prior research has found. Furthermore, Circuit Courts defer to District Court discretion substantially more when considering procedural issues, as opposed to sentencing-related issues, in which panels are more active in altering District Court determinations. Overall, Circuit Courts are not a mere rubber stamp on District Court decisions in terrorism cases, but appellate outcomes are influenced by panel ideology, Circuit Court, and District Court judge ideology. Due to data limitations however, these findings need to be replicated and explored more.