Justice is Less Blind, and Less Legalistic, than We Thought: Evidence from an Experiment with Real Judges
Harvard Law School John M. Olin Center Discussion Paper No. 884 (2016)
41 Pages Posted: 30 Sep 2016 Last revised: 17 Nov 2016
Date Written: September 1, 2016
We experimentally investigate the determinants of judicial decisions in a setting resembling real-world judicial decision-making. U.S. federal judges (N=32) spend 55 minutes judging a real appeals case from an international tribunal, with minor modifications to accommodate the experimental treatments. The fictitious briefs focus on one easily understandable issue of law. Our 2×2 between-subject factorial design crosses a weak precedent and legally irrelevant defendant characteristics. In a survey, law professors predicted that the precedent would have a stronger effect than the defendant characteristics. In actuality, the precedent has no detectable effect on the judges’ decisions, whereas the two defendants’ affirmance rates differ by 45% (p<.01). Judges’ written reasons, on the other hand, do not mention defendant characteristics at all, focusing instead on the precedent and other legalistic and policy considerations.
Keywords: Precedent, judicial decision-making, judicial behavior, judicial bias, judicial psychology, determinants of judicial decisions, international criminal law, experiments in law
JEL Classification: K14, K40
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation