Socioeconomic Bias in the Judiciary

29 Pages Posted: 20 Sep 2012 Last revised: 20 Jun 2013

Date Written: September 19, 2012


Judges hold a prestigious place in our judicial system, and they earn double the income of the average American household. How does the privileged socioeconomic status of judges affect their decisions on the bench? This article examines the ethical implications of what Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski recently called the “unselfconscious cultural elitism” of judges. This elitism can manifest as implicit socioeconomic bias.

Despite the attention paid to income inequality, implicit bias research and judicial bias, no other scholar to date has fully examined the ramifications of implicit socioeconomic bias on the bench. The article explains that socioeconomic bias may be more obscure than other forms of bias, but its impact on judicial decision-making processes can create very real harm for disadvantaged populations. The article reviews social science studies confirming that implicit bias can be prevalent even in people who profess to hold no explicit prejudices. Thus, even those judges who believe their wealthy backgrounds play no role in their judicial deliberations may be influenced by implicit socioeconomic bias. The article verifies the existence of implicit socioeconomic bias on the part of judges through examination of recent Fourth Amendment and child custody cases. These cases reveal that judges can and do favor wealthy litigants over those living in poverty, with significant negative consequences for low-income people.

The article contends that the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct (the “Code”), the document designed to regulate the behavior of judges, fails to effectively eliminate implicit socioeconomic bias. The article recommends innovative revisions designed to strengthen the Code’s prohibition against bias, and suggests improvements to judicial training materials in this context. These changes will serve to increase judicial awareness of the potential for implicit socioeconomic bias in their judicial decisions, and will bring this issue to the forefront of the judicial agenda.

Keywords: judicial ethics, judicial bias, ABA Code of Judicial Conduct, socioeconomic, implicit bias, fourth amendment, child custody, poverty, social justice

JEL Classification: K39, K40

Suggested Citation

Neitz, Michele Benedetto, Socioeconomic Bias in the Judiciary (September 19, 2012). 61 Cleveland State Law Review 137 (2013), Available at SSRN:

Michele Benedetto Neitz (Contact Author)

Golden Gate University School of Law ( email )

536 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
United States
415-442-6575 (Phone)

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