Experiments in the Court: The Legal and Ethical Challenges of Running Randomized Field Experiments in the Courtroom

78 Pages Posted: 29 Jun 2017 Last revised: 11 Sep 2019

See all articles by Jacob Kopas

Jacob Kopas

Columbia University

Dane Thorley

Columbia University Political Science; Columbia Law School

Date Written: June 20, 2018


Although legal scholars have been utilizing experimental methodologies for over 60 years, they have only recently begun to design and implement field experiments, an empirical method in which subjects are randomly assigned treatments in natural settings. Field experiments are a powerful tool for identifying causal relationships, but relative to observational studies, where researchers gather data that already exist, field experiments can be problematic because they require the researcher to actively intervene in the subjects' lives. Because of these interventions, researchers and organizations running experiments must address a number of ethical concerns before and during their study. When field experiments take place in the court context, these ethical concerns become even more salient, because researchers must also take into account the legal implications of randomizing interventions in actual court cases. In this article, we explore the legal and ethical issues surrounding the use of court-based field experiments. It is the only assessment of its kind and should be a useful tool for researchers and organizations interested in conducting such projects, institutional review boards responsible for approving such studies, judges tasked with evaluating the reliability of data resulting from court-based field experimentation, and individuals considering legal action based on experimental results.

Keywords: law, field experiments, randomized experiments, courts, ethics, methods

Suggested Citation

Kopas, Jacob and Thorley, Dane, Experiments in the Court: The Legal and Ethical Challenges of Running Randomized Field Experiments in the Courtroom (June 20, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2994298 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2994298

Jacob Kopas

Columbia University ( email )

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Dane Thorley (Contact Author)

Columbia University Political Science ( email )

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New York, NY 10027
United States
801-602-1444 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://danethorley.com

Columbia Law School

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