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April 18, 2011

Beware of hungry judges


From this past weekend's Wall Street Journal: "A study of parole decisions in Israel indicates that if the judge hadn't taken a food break recently, the petitioner stood a greater chance of losing.

"Researchers looked at 1,112 rulings involving requests for parole (or for changes of incarceration terms) presented to eight judges. They heard cases daily, interrupting for a morning snack and lunch.

"The odds of an inmate receiving a favorable decision started at 65%, first thing in the morning, then steadily dropped until the snack break. If the judge heard eight cases in the morning, the average success rate for the last one was 25%. If the judge heard 12 cases, the average success rate for the final one was 0%. Favorable rulings popped back up to 65% when the judge returned, then slid again until lunchtime. The same pattern appeared post-lunch.

"The authors could find no other factors that might explain the pattern beyond the hearing's timing, relative to the food breaks. They had no direct measure of the judges' mood."

Below, the abstract of the paper, published in the April 12, 2011 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Extraneous factors in judicial decisions

Are judicial rulings based solely on laws and facts? Legal formalism holds that judges apply legal reasons to the facts of a case in a rational, mechanical, and deliberative manner. In contrast, legal realists argue that the rational application of legal reasons does not sufficiently explain the decisions of judges and that psychological, political, and social factors influence judicial rulings. We test the common caricature of realism that justice is “what the judge ate for breakfast” in sequential parole decisions made by experienced judges. We record the judges’ two daily food breaks, which result in segmenting the deliberations of the day into three distinct “decision sessions.” We find that the percentage of favorable rulings drops gradually from ≈65% to nearly zero within each decision session and returns abruptly to ≈65% after a break. Our findings suggest that judicial rulings can be swayed by extraneous variables that should have no bearing on legal decisions.

April 18, 2011 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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"Excuse me. Did you just say yute?"

Posted by: Dave Tufte | Apr 19, 2011 9:13:01 AM

Youts better remember this.

Posted by: clifyt | Apr 18, 2011 4:05:09 PM

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