Are Judges Better People? Probably.

In my first post, I wrote about data from the Fairfax County General District Court (FCGDC) and how it seems to support the view that courts themselves should not be the primary target of the typical criminal justice reformer. This should not be misconstrued as evidence that courts are models of well-designed institutions that we should copy whenever possible. The FCGDC data provides support for the view that prosecutors are extremely effective at giving adjudicating authorities what they want, and by a stroke of fortune the adjudicating authorities want things like accuracy and procedural discipline instead of things like apartheid. In other words, the FCGDC doesn’t seem to be a particularly robust institution, but nevertheless it happens to work surprisingly well. In this post, I’ll give a few reasons why I think that’s true.

If the story I’ve outline is correct, judges are basically benevolent dictators. This is exceedingly rare in politics; why does it make sense in the courtroom?

From “’Ideology’ or ‘Situation Sense’? An Experimental Investigation of Motivated Reasoning and Professional Judgment” by Dan Kahan, David Hoffman, Danieli Evans, Neal Devins, Eugene Lucci, and Katherine Cheng:

The study involved a sample of sitting judges (n = 253), who, like members of a general public sample (n = 800), were culturally polarized on climate change, marijuana legalization and other contested issues. When the study subjects were assigned to analyze statutory interpretation problems, however, only the responses of the general-public subjects and not those of the judges varied in patterns that reflected the subjects’ cultural values. The responses of a sample of lawyers (n = 217) were also uninfluenced by their cultural values; the responses of a sample of law students (n = 284), in contrast, displayed a level of cultural bias only modestly less pronounced than that observed in the general-public sample.

The key takeaway from this study is that judges are less susceptible to cognitive biases than members of the public. The authors attribute this to legal training, and their results do seem to support this story; law students do worse than judges and members of the public do worse than law students. I wonder how much of the story can be explained by IQ alone (judges have higher IQs than law students, law students have higher IQs than the general population); it would be interesting to see the study redone testing additional high-IQ groups without formal legal training (sociologists, engineers, economists, etc.). At any rate, the results are interesting.

Obviously the study results are obtained by judges responding to an anonymous, low-stakes survey. But the results from the FCGDC dataset support that judges abstain from motivated reasoning even in relatively high-stakes trials. Given that few formal institutions constrain judge behavior (in practice they are basically free to adjudicate however they want), what can account for a judge’s style? Probably the same things that prevent people from producing low-quality work in general – it’s embarrassing, for one. Economists often note that the bureaucracy, for example, works better than you would expect assuming all of its agents are highly self-interested. The same seems to apply to judges.


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