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The three-judge district court has had a long and strange career in the history of the federal court system. Congress created the court in 1910 as a response to the canonical decision of Ex parte Young two years earlier, which permitted federal court suits against state officials to facilitate constitutional challenges to state laws. The three-judge court statute was a reaction by Progressive Era politicians to such perceived judicial overreach, and required any such challenges to be brought before a specially convened trial court of three judges, with a direct appeal to the Supreme Court available. First established as a presumed limit on judicial activism, decades later plaintiffs in the Civil Rights Era came to see the court as advancing their agenda. Particularly in the South, some plaintiffs preferred to have their suits decided by three judges rather than the usual one, with a direct appeal available to a relatively friendly Warren Court. For that and other reasons, the total number of such cases in the district courts, and direct appeals to the Supreme Court, swelled in the 1960s and 1970s. But at the same time the court came to be seen by many as administratively burdensome and unnecessary, and Congress in 1976 severely restricted the jurisdiction of the court, limiting it to hearing only reapportionment cases.

Analysis of the three-judge district court has so far largely relied on anecdotal evidence, and limited empirical studies, to examine whether some plaintiffs in the Civil Rights Era were correct to consider the court as friendly to their interests, as compared to a typical single district judge with the normal appeal process. This article breaks new ground and extends those studies by systematically reexamining these assumptions through a unique, nationwide database of 885 three-judge district court decisions, regarding constitutional challenges to state laws, handed down from 1954 (the start of the Warren Court) to 1976 (when Congress limited the Court’s jurisdiction). The study provides greater and more complete information on the number, types and results of cases litigated in the court, as well as on the dispositions of appeals to the Supreme Court. Among our findings are that such court decisions were disproportionately in favor of plaintiffs, both in and outside the South, and that there was a high rate of appeal to the Supreme Court. We then consider how the decisions of the three-judge court, and its direct appeal mechanism, affected jurisprudential developments in several areas of civil rights litigation, including reapportionment and judicial abstention. We also address how these decisions impact the Judicial Capacity model, which posits that the sheer number of cases that come to the Court for review affects doctrinal developments. The study situates the three-judge district court in a richer historical context, and sheds light on the continued use of the court in more limited contexts to the present day.