A new study out not long ago suggests that if you're going to court, you'd better get there early, or things won't go so well for you, because the judge may be thinking more about that bag lunch in his chambers than your legal needs: A recent study showed that judges handed down less favorable decisions to prisoners later in the day, with the effect reversing after a break.
Reported primarily by sites like Freakonomics as suggesting that hungry judges hand down harsher sentences in criminal cases, the study is actually broader than that, with the researchers saying the study:
hints that the apparent depletion exhibited by the judges is due to the act of making decisions rather than simply elapsed timeThat is, the more judges do, the less mental energy they have to put into things they do later, unless they take a short break, resulting in judges simply rejecting requests and sticking with the "status quo."
Two indicators support our view that rejecting requests is an easier decision—and, thus, a more likely outcome—when judges are mentally depleted: (i) favorable rulings took significantly longer than unfavorable rulings and (ii) written verdicts of favorable rulings were significantly longer than written verdicts of unfavorable rulingsSo it was harder, and took longer, for the judges to come up with a ruling in favor of the prisoner's request when "mentally depleted."
The researchers also didn't conclude that simply having a Kit Kat was likely to let more convicts back on the streets:
However, we cannot unequivocally determine whether simply resting or eating restores the judges’ mental resources because each of the breaks was taken for the purpose of eating a meal. We also cannot ascertain whether taking a break improved the judges’ mood because mood was not measured in our study....
The study concludes by pointing directly at the white elephant in the courtroom:
Nevertheless, our results do indicate that extraneous variables can influence judicial decisions, which bolsters the growing body of evidence that points to the susceptibility of experienced judges to psychological biases. Finally, our findings support the view that the law is indeterminate by showing that legally irrelevant situational determinants—in this case, merely taking a food break—may lead a judge to rule differently in cases with similar legal characteristics.The idea that mental resources can be depleted and result in harsher rulings or more "status quo" judgments has a significant impact on lots of cases. For example: In initial appearances, in Dane County, lawyers can check in and get their cases called before pro se defendants' cases come up -- so the defendant who has a lawyer gets a double advantage of a lawyer and an early ruling on bond conditions.
Domestic violence cases, foreclosure judgments, and divorces also have a cattle call aspect in many courts: The courts line up 5, 10, 15 cases in the morning and run through a sometimes-lengthy list of stipulated or default judgments before taking the contested cases - -so the contested cases are being heard after the judge is "mentally depleted." (I also noted, in my judicial campaign, that litigants with a lawyer in domestic abuse cases are more likely to get an injunction granted. Having lawyered-cases go earlier could affect that, as well.)
Most of the world is having fun with this, making jokes about bringing the judge a sandwich. It's worrisome, though, because lawyers like me present unusual claims to judges on a fairly-regular basis, and if the effect in this study holds up, at least some of those cases were decided in part based on the time of day I was in court.
I guess I shouldn't complain about those 8 a.m. hearings anymore?