The independence of the judiciary is a central principle of a democracy. Judicial independence permits judges to make rulings based on legal principles instead of politics or public opinion. An independent court system allows fair and impartial decisions in legal cases. Political scientists have conducted research and studies to identify what factors influence a judge’s decision-making. This article discusses some of the factors research has evaluated as affecting judicial decision-making. These include demographics and social background, partisanship and the appointing President’s party affiliation, prior employment, potential for promotion, and judicial precedent.
Demographics and Social Background
There have been a number of empirical studies examining whether social background or personal characteristics influence judicial decisions. Studies have shown that there is not a great deal of correlation between demographics or social background and the decisions made by judges. For example, a judge’s race or sex has not been shown to be an influential factor in explaining a judge’s decisions. In addition, recent studies have not generally found age to be a valuable factor in explaining judicial behavior.
Partisanship and Appointing President’s Party Affiliation
Studies have found some correlation between a judge’s political party affiliation and how the judge will decide a case that is ideologically divisive. The party affiliation of the President who appointed the judge is also useful in predicting judicial attitudes.
Prior judicial experience does not generally appear to correlate with judicial behavior. But, some studies have found prior criminal prosecution or defense experience to have some influence on judicial decision-making.
Potential for Promotion
Recent studies have found that the potential for promotion is a factor in explaining lower federal court judge’s behavior.
Judicial precedent means that a judicial decision made in one case is binding on all later cases with similar facts. There is a hierarchy of judicial precedent. U.S. Supreme Court decisions are binding on all other federal courts and on all state courts. The decisions of the highest state court are binding on all lower courts in that state. Where there is no precedent covering a case before the court, the court is free to decide the matter. Recent studies have shown that judges appear to rely on the written opinions of other judges in resolving difficult issues for which there is no binding higher authority. Judicial precedent thus plays a big role in judicial decision-making; judges are likely to follow the precedents laid down by other judges even if the decisions are not binding.