Most judges, lawyers and anyone that watched an episode of Matlock would suggest that judicial rulings are based solely on law and facts. After all, Justice is blind, and an objective Judiciary must apply facts to the law and render an impartial and unbiased decision. The Economist’s column, “The Science of Justice,” discussed the findings of a study by Professors Shai Danziger, PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience, and Jonathan Levav, PhD in Marketing that researched extraneous factors in judicial decision making. They found some startling information.
In order to test whether judges are prone to external influence, Danziger and Levav tested the age-old saying that “justice is what the judge ate for breakfast.”
Danziger and Levav spent 10 months documenting eight Israeli judges’ parole decisions. After 10 months, the two professors had over 1,000 parole decisions to answer the question whether justice depended on eating Wheaties. They found that 2/3 of parole applications were granted at the start of the day and then would dramatically decline to zero right before the judges recessed. It took the judges about 5 minutes to deny parole and over 7 minutes to grant parole. The judges would take a break and eat something, as soon as they returned, prisoners requesting leniency would again have the same statistical chance (2/3) to succeed and, as time progressed, diminish to zero. The most important factor for those requesting parole was their order on the judges’ daily list. Neither the severity of the original crime nor the ethnicity or gender of the parolee mattered in the judges’ decision making — only the snack break.
Lady Justice may be blind but she needs a timeout to catch her breath and eat.
One of the suggested hypotheses, is that hard decisions and attendant thinking takes a toll. As a result, the judges, like most people, get tired and seek easier solutions to lighten their mental load. The Israeli judges took longer to render a decision to grant parole and, consistent with being tired, did not grant parole (which took less time) as they approached a recess. Danziger and Levav suggest implementing mandatory breaks for judges.
The U.S. judicial system has an enormous strain from the volume of criminal and civil matters. Judges may be evaluated more by a perception of efficiency than being judicious. For instance, Judge X has been assigned 100 matters this year and 50 are no longer active; therefore, the judge is doing her job. Judges then begin to push juries and, equally important, themselves to keep up with the demand for final resolution.
A timely example of the researchers’ findings: Last Friday, during the closing arguments of the Galleon Trial, New York Times’ reporters Azhem Ahmed and Peter Lattman describe:
The jury’s patience with the nearly two-month long trial appeared to wear thin. As Mr. Streeter [the prosecutor] continued his summation past 5 p.m. — the hour at which the court usually breaks for the day — two jurors groaned. Another rolled her eyes and put on her coat.
There is no need to push our mental limits at the expense of justice. Lady Justice can do much better. Even Matlock got a commercial break.