Can Judges Make Reliable Numeric Judgments? Distorted Damages and Skewed Sentences

Posted: 15 Mar 2017

See all articles by Jeffrey J. Rachlinski

Jeffrey J. Rachlinski

Cornell Law School

Andrew J. Wistrich

California Central District Court

Chris Guthrie

Vanderbilt University - Law School

Date Written: March 13, 2015

Abstract

In a series of studies involving over six hundred trial judges in three countries, we demonstrate that trial judges’ civil damage awards and criminal sentences are subject to influences that make them erratic. We found that the presence of misleading numeric reference points (or “anchors”) affected judges’ decisions in a series of hypothetical cases. Specifically, judges imposed shorter sentences when assigning sentences in months rather than in years; awarded higher amounts of compensatory damages when informed of a cap on damage awards; imposed different sentences depending upon the sequence in which criminal cases were presented to them; and were influenced by a plaintiff’s reference to a damage award seen on a “court TV show.” Taken together, the results suggest that unless judges take steps to reduce their susceptibility to anchors, their awards and sentences are apt to be highly unreliable. We also suggest how judges can safeguard against these influences and assign more stable awards and sentences.

Suggested Citation

Rachlinski, Jeffrey John and Wistrich, Andrew J. and Guthrie, Chris, Can Judges Make Reliable Numeric Judgments? Distorted Damages and Skewed Sentences (March 13, 2015). Indiana Law Journal, Vol. 90, No. 2, 2015. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2932323

Jeffrey John Rachlinski (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States
607-255-5878 (Phone)
607-255-7193 (Fax)

Andrew J. Wistrich

California Central District Court ( email )

Los Angeles, CA 90012
United States

Chris Guthrie

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States
615-322-6823 (Phone)
615-322-6631 (Fax)

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