Vacancy in Justice: Analyzing the Impact of Overburdened Judges on Sentencing Decisions
36 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2014 Last revised: 23 Jan 2015
Date Written: January 22, 2015
Policymakers and scholars repeatedly warn that frequent and persistent judicial vacancies pose one of the greatest threats to the federal judiciary by overburdening judges. Scholars, in turn, are divided as to whether pressure on judges results in more lenient punishment. Despite such concerns, the effect of vacancies is rarely tested directly and related studies generally fail to account for issues of endogeneity related to vacancies and caseloads. We address both concerns by using an innovative instrumental variables strategy and unique data, consisting of over 400,000 cases to test vacancies’ effects on federal district court judges’ sentencing decisions. We find that overburdened judges take shortcuts, such as using focal points and cues, resulting in harsher sentences. The analysis has significant implications for those concerned with civil liberties and taxpayers who must shoulder the financial costs of incarceration.
Keywords: judicial vacancies; federal district courts; U.S. Sentencing Guidelines
JEL Classification: K14, K40, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation