Under the standard account of judicial behavior, when a panel of appellate court judges cannot agree on the outcome of a case, the panel has two options. First, it can publish a divided decision with a majority opinion and a dissent. Panels usually do not take this route because a dissent dramatically increases the probability of reversal. The second and more common option is for the panel to bargain and compromise over the reasoning of the decision and then publish a unanimous opinion.
This Article argues that a divided panel has a third option: strategic publication. The panel can choose not to publish any opinion at all and thus sap its decision of precedential weight and insulate it from further scrutiny by higher courts. This Article also reports the results of a novel empirical analysis of case-level data on published and unpublished decisions in one federal circuit court. While it finds little empirical evidence that majority-Democrat panels in the sample engage in strategic publication, it finds evidence that majority-Republican panels do. The Article concludes by offering several policy proposals to diminish strategic publication by separating the publication decision from judicial negotiations over the merits.