Court Hearings

Kevin Lewis

April 30, 2021

How Interpersonal Contact Affects Appellate Review
Michael Nelson, Morgan Hazelton & Rachael Hinkle
Journal of Politics, forthcoming


Prominent explanations for appellate review prioritize the ideological alignment of the lower and reviewing courts. We suggest that interpersonal relationships play an important role. The effect of an appellate judge’s ideology on her decision to reverse depends on the level of interpersonal contact between the trial and appellate judge due to information provided by social and professional interactions. Relying on a dataset of all published Fourth Amendment search and seizure decisions from 1953-2010, we find that interpersonal relationships can dampen the effect of ideology in appellate review. When an appellate and trial court judge have frequent contact, the effect of ideology on the appellate judge’s decision to reverse is essentially imperceptible. These findings speak to the importance of relationships in principal-agent arrangements generally and have implications for the structure of the federal judiciary and our understanding of the limits of ideological judicial decisionmaking.

Drug overdose death rates and criminal sentencing of federal drug offenders in the United States
Alexander Testa & Jacqueline Lee
Journal of Criminal Justice, forthcoming


The rate of drug overdose deaths has increased substantially in the United States in the past two decades. However, limited research has examined how the criminal justice system is responding to this growing epidemic. Using data on criminal sentences in federal district courts, the current study assesses the relationship between drug overdose death rates and criminal sentences in the United States. Results from multilevel regression models demonstrate that sentences for federal drug offenders were shorter in areas that experienced higher overdose rates and increased growth in overdose rates over time. Findings also demonstrated substantial heterogeneity by drug type, such that substances most closely associated with the overdose crisis (i.e., pharmaceutical opioids and methamphetamines) were sentenced less harshly in areas with higher drug overdose rates. Analyses assessing the change in overdose rates over time, demonstrated that several substances (crack-cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine) were sentenced more harshly in areas with greater growth in the overdose rate, whereas cocaine and pharmaceutical opioids were not impacted by changes in drug overdose rate. These findings are interpreted through the lens of theoretical perspectives and contemporary research pertaining to ways levels of crime and social problems influence punishment decisions.

Judge Effects, Case Characteristics, and Plea Bargaining
Kristin Butcher, Kyung Park & Anne Morrison Piehl
Journal of Labor Economics, April 2021, Pages S543–S574


A growing literature uses random assignment of cases to judges to examine criminal sentencing. To extend this line of work, we directly examine how judicial “harshness” varies with the seriousness of criminal conviction. Using a model that respects the mix of cases and the noise produced by small caseloads, we find that case severity is best viewed as an endogenous outcome of bargaining. We also find that harsher judges have a higher share of cases failing to reach a plea bargain, but perhaps surprisingly, there is little evidence that large jumps in expected incarceration lead to differential plea bargain outcomes.

The U.S. Supreme Court's Characterizations of the Press: An Empirical Study
RonNell Andersen Jones & Sonja West
University of Georgia Working Paper, February 2021


The erosion of constitutional norms in the United States is at the center of an urgent national debate. Among the most crucial of these issues is the fragile and deteriorating relationship between the press and the government. While scholars have responded with sophisticated examinations of legislators’ and the President’s characterizations of the news media, one branch of government has received little scrutiny—the U.S. Supreme Court. This gap in the scholarship is remarkable in light of the Court’s role as the very institution entrusted with safeguarding the rights of the press. This paper presents the findings of the first comprehensive empirical examination of the Court’s depictions of the press. We tracked every reference to the press by a U.S. Supreme Court Justice in the Court’s opinions since 1784. We coded these references to the press (broadly defined by the Justices themselves) for the presence of common frames and for whether the frame was conveyed with a positive, negative, or neutral tone. The results of our study reveal troubling trends at the Court, with widespread implications for any discussion of contemporary press freedom. We find that there has been a stark deterioration in both the quantity and quality of the Court’s depictions of the press across a variety of measures. Our data show that the Justices are now less likely to talk about the press than they were in the past, and that, when they do, it is more often in a negative light. At this crucial moment, when we have seen the risks of executive and legislative branch attacks on the press, our study finds that the U.S. Supreme Court is not pushing back. The study also reveals a substantial correlation between ideology and the Justices’ attitudes toward the press. It likewise illuminates the press-characterizing behaviors of the most and least press-friendly Justices of all time and of the currently sitting Justices, providing insights into patterns that might be expected in the years to come.

Biased Judgments without Biased Judges: How Legal Institutions Cause Errors
Ryan Hübert
Journal of Politics, forthcoming


Certain features of the legal system, such as litigant-driven appeals and random assignment of judges to cases, are supposed to prevent biased and error-prone decision-making by judges. I analyze a formal model illustrating this is not always true, even when judges are personally unbiased. First, an unbiased trial judge may make systematically biased judgments when that judge’s decisions can be appealed by a losing litigant. If the judge is sufficiently reversal averse, this bias favors higher resource litigants. Second, litigant-driven appeals allow unbiased judges to put less effort into resolving cases correctly. Third, when unbiased judges are assigned randomly to cases, they will produce more errors than a case assignment system allowing trial judges more freedom to select cases. The results confirm one contention of “team models” of judicial hierarchy (that litigant behavior is important) while also demonstrating the limits of another (that judicial hierarchies minimize adjudication errors).

Greater public confidence in the US Supreme Court predicts more jurisdiction stripping
Joseph Daniel Ura & Patrick Wohlfarth
Political Science Research and Methods, forthcoming


A growing body of empirical research shows an association between public support for the US Supreme Court and both judicial independence and congressional court curbing activity. At the same time, studies of jurisdiction stripping show Congress’ efforts to limit federal courts’ jurisdiction are principally related to courts’ workloads rather than ideological differences between courts and Congress. Here, the authors connect these streams of inquiry by testing the hypothesis of a negative relationship between public support for the Supreme Court and jurisdiction-stripping legislation. Contrary to prior studies, the authors find a positive relationship between Americans’ confidence in the Supreme Court and jurisdiction stripping. This result indicates the need for additional research on the interactions among public opinion, federal courts, and Congress.

Making Gideon Count? Public Defender Resources and Felony Case Outcomes for Black, White, and Latinx Individuals
Aaron Gottlieb
Race and Justice, forthcoming


Although Gideon v. Wainright has provided indigent defendants potentially facing prison time the right to counsel, commentators and scholars have documented that the public defense system is vastly underfunded and currently in crisis. However, research has rarely examined how public defender resources impact case outcomes, and the research that does exist has yet, to my knowledge, examine how these resources impact racial disparities in case outcomes. By merging data from the Census of Public Defender Offices to data from the State Court Processing Statistics, I begin to fill this gap. Results from multivariate regression analyses with state-year fixed effects provide mixed evidence. Regardless of race, higher public defender and support staff caseloads tend to be associated with worse case outcomes. In the case of pretrial detention, I find that high public defender and support staff caseloads exacerbate Black-White disparities. With respect to sentence length, I find evidence that high public defender caseloads exacerbate Latinx-White disparities and some evidence that they mitigate Black-White disparities. In sum, these results provide strong support for the view that the public defender funding crisis harms indigent defendants regardless of race and mixed evidence regarding its impact on racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Time for Time: Uncovering Case Processing Duration as a Source of Punitiveness
Lin Liu, R.R. Dunlea & Besiki Luka Kutateladze
Crime & Delinquency, forthcoming


The literature on sentencing has devoted ample consideration to how prosecutors and judges incorporate priorities such as retribution and public safety into their decision making, typically using legal and extralegal characteristics as analytic proxies. In contrast, the role of case processing efficiency in determining punishment outcomes has garnered little attention. Using recent data from a large Florida jurisdiction, we examine the influence of case screening and disposition timeliness on sentence outcomes in felony cases. We find that lengthier case processing time is highly and positively associated with punitive outcomes at sentencing. The more time prosecutors spend on a case post-filing, the more likely defendants are to receive custodial sentences and longer sentences. Case screening time, although not affecting the imposition of custodial sentences, is also positively associated with sentence length. These findings are discussed through the lens of instrumental and expressive functions of punishment.

Essentialist thinking predicts culpability and punishment judgments
Yian Xu et al.
Psychology, Crime & Law, forthcoming


People often perceive social groups (e.g. ethnic groups, occupations, gender groups) as having fixed membership and discrete boundaries. This paper proposes that essentialist beliefs about abstract crime concepts, as naturally defined and universally coherent, play a role in culpability and sentencing judgments. In three studies, a general sample of college students (Study 1, n = 52), a lay public sample recruited from MTurk (Study 2, n = 102), and a sample of college students recruited from criminal justice classrooms (Study 3, n = 62) read crime vignettes and made culpability and sentencing decisions. We measured essentialist beliefs about crime categories by using an adapted essentialism scale for crimes, hypothesizing that essentialist tendencies would predict higher culpability ratings and harsher punishments. Results showed that lay participants had an overall tendency to endorse essentialist statements, and their essentialist ratings significantly predicted culpability and sentencing judgments with regards to the corresponding crimes. In contrast, students with formal education in criminal justice showed significantly weaker essentialist thinking about crime concepts, and their essentialist ratings did not predict culpability and sentencing outcomes. The current findings provide new evidence regarding how essentialist thinking and subject matter knowledge frames lay understandings about crime concepts, and how such intuitive beliefs may systematically influence legal judgments.

The Roberts Court and the Transformation of Constitutional Protections for Religion: A Statistical Portrait
Lee Epstein & Eric Posner
Supreme Court Review, forthcoming


The Roberts Court has ruled in favor of religious organizations far more frequently than its predecessors — over 81% of the time, compared to about 50% for all previous eras since 1953. In most of these cases, the winning religion was a mainstream Christian organization, whereas in the past pro-religion outcomes more frequently favored minority or marginal religious organizations. A statistical analysis suggests that this transformation is largely the result of changes in the Court’s personnel: a majority of Roberts Court justices are ideologically conservative and religiously devout — a significant break from the past. We also explore other possible explanations.

Race, Ethnicity, and Official Perceptions in the Juvenile Justice System: Extending the Role of Negative Attributional Stereotypes
Laura Beckman & Nancy Rodriguez
Criminal Justice and Behavior, forthcoming


Overrepresentation of youth of color in the juvenile justice system has been well-documented. Although prior research has frequently drawn on attribution theory to explain the sources of racial and ethnic disparity in juvenile court outcomes, the key mechanisms (negative internal and external attributions) put forth by this theory have seldom been directly empirically tested. Using juvenile probation file content (N = 285) that quantitatively captures court officials’ perceptions of youth, this study examines whether negative attributions differentially influence diversion decisions for Black, Latino/a, and Native American youth. Findings reveal that youth of color are more likely to be linked to negative internal attributions in comparison with White youth. Importantly, negative internal attributions in turn decrease the probability of receiving diversion. Analyses demonstrate that negative stereotypes play an important role in how juvenile court officials form perceptions of youth. Implications for theory and practice are discussed.

The Black Effect: Reimagining Racial Threat Through a Black Absolute Status Lens
Tri Keah Henry
Crime & Delinquency, forthcoming


Sentencing scholars have established the importance of examining how contextual-level factors influence judicial decision-making. Several studies have tested whether the presence of, or change in, minority populations — indicators of racial threat — impact disparate treatment of racial/ethnic minorities. Relying on these conceptualizations, however, ignores other important nuances of racial threat. The current study addresses this methodological limitation by employing a newly established comprehensive conceptualization of racial threat. More specifically, data from the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing (FY2013-2015) are used to examine whether Black absolute status, a measure that taps into the sociopolitical position of Black citizens, influences the nature of racial disparities. Findings suggest that Black/White sentence disparities may be moderated by the extent of Black absolute status at the county level.

Perceptions of campaign donors and their impact on judgments of judicial fairness
Narina Nunez & Kimberly Schweitzer
Psychology, Crime & Law, forthcoming


Perceptions of judicial fairness for elected state judges were examined across a series of studies. Of particular interest was how campaign donations and types of cases affect perceptions that judges could be fair. In Study 1, participants (N = 120) rated the political orientation of 14 groups or companies known to provide campaign contributions and rated how fair judges could be if they received donations from these entities. In Study 2, participants read about a judge who received donations from a liberal or conservative political action committee (N = 190) or corporation (N = 188). Study 3 (N = 809) tested whether judicial recusal in conflicted cases could repair perceptions of judicial fairness. Individual differences in participant political orientation were also examined. Across all studies, participants rated judges as less fair when they received donations during their campaigns and later heard cases that were clearly related to donors’ interests. Significant interactions between participant and donor political orientation were found. Generally, liberal participants thought judges would be less fair when donors were conservative, and conservative participants thought judges would be less fair when donors were liberal. Finally, judicial recusal led to higher future fairness ratings.


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