Increased diversity among participants in the justice system, particularly judges, has fueled debates about the values and perspectives that women bring to the law. Difference theories advanced by social psychologists and feminist scholars argue for the premise that men and women in the legal system approach questions of justice differently. By contrast, empirical scholarship offers only limited support for the expectation that the sex of the judge is related to behavioral outcomes. Although most research has not uncovered differences in voting between men and women judges, one area in which consistent differences has been found is in sex discrimination cases. Recent studies suggest, however, that individual differences between men and women judges may emerge if the focus shifts to the litigation process. In one study of trial courts, cases assigned to women judges were more likely to be settled. In another study of appellate courts, women judges were more likely to pen majority opinions that adopted a compromise position. These findings suggest the promise of shifting the analytical focus away from behavioral outcomes to consider whether, and how, women and men in the legal system shape litigation processes. Doing so will require additional data and triangulated approaches that employ both quantitative and qualitative methods. Additional research is also needed to explore how shifts in the gender composition of the bench affect organizational norms and practices in the legal system at the federal, state, and local levels. Some work suggests that gender diversity affects deliberations on small appellate panels and consensual norms on larger courts. As the number of women and minorities appointed by recent Democratic and Republican presidents has increased, scholars are also now well positioned to conduct empirical research with larger numbers to investigate how women of color on the bench differ from white women and minority men.
Susan Haire and Laura P. Moyer
Christina L. Boyd and Adam G. Rutkowski
Trial court judges are often referred to as the workhorses of the judicial system. This is unsurprising given that millions of civil and criminal cases are filed and resolved in U.S. state and federal trial courts each year. Very few of these cases ever reach appellate courts, meaning that trial courts are often the first and only court with which people directly interact. At the same time, trial courts can make local and national policy, both in individual cases and in the aggregate. This important role of trial courts and their actors has not gone unnoticed by scholars across social science disciplines. One can consider trial courts in a broad sense by tracking the historical developments that led to the trial courts in the United States. As caseloads have increased, trial courts—particularly those with specialized jurisdictions—have been created out of necessity. State trial courts feature variation in their judicial selection methods, including elections and appointments. At the federal level, increased polarization has led to contentious partisan confirmation battles for federal trial court judges. Trials are a rare occurrence, with plea agreements and settlements being the most frequent methods of resolving cases. To understand trial court actor behavior, it is important to remember that state and federal trial courts sit at the bottom of their judicial hierarchies. The preferences of their hierarchical superiors, along with the presence of high trial court caseloads and the rarity of trials, rein in judges’ discretion and the potential effects of their personal characteristics and attitudes. Because of these judge constraints, actors such as prosecutors, defense attorneys, and juries play a significant role in trial court outcomes. As the literature reveals, the “repeat players” in trial courts hold significant advantages over less experienced litigants and attorneys that affect their likelihood of gaining favorable outcomes, among other things. Race and gender of these actors can have significant effects on behavior in certain types of cases. There are many hurdles that remain for scholars seeking to study trial courts. For example, state trial courts, in particular, continue to be difficult to study empirically. This is due largely to a lack of data availability. Relatedly, scholars must continue to strive to find ways to study trial court outcomes and events that do not lead to published opinions—for example settlements, plea bargains, prosecutorial declinations, and many decided motions. Each of these involves important decisions and outcomes that affect parties and may be affected by judges and lawyers.
Lisa M. Holmes
The American judicial system is not a static, simple, or mechanical entity. Rather, it is a complex organization that is developed and staffed in response to changing caseload and societal pressures through a process that is inherently political. The key personnel who help the judiciary function bring varied backgrounds and perspectives with them that influence the work they do. As is the case with any political system, understanding American politics and policy making requires an understanding of the judiciary’s role in the American political system. In addition, on a daily basis, courts function to resolve disputes. While most cases have little direct impact on American policy or society broadly speaking, the resolution of these cases is important to those who turn to the courts of law to resolve their disputes.
Charles M. Cameron and Lewis A. Kornhauser
We summarize the formal theoretical literature on Supreme Court decision-making. We focus on two core questions: What does the Supreme Court of the United States do, and how can one model those actions; and, what do the justices of the Supreme Court want, and how can one model those preferences? Given the current state of play in judicial studies, these questions then direct this survey mostly to so-called separation of powers (SOP) models, and to studies of a multi-member (“collegial”) court employing the Supreme Court’s very distinctive and highly unusual voting rule. The survey makes four main points. First, it sets out a new taxonomy that unifies much of the literature by linking judicial actions, modeling conventions, and the treatment of the status quo. In addition, the taxonomy identifies some models that employ inconsistent assumptions about Supreme Court actions and consequences. Second, the discussion of judicial preferences clarifies the links between judicial actions and judicial preferences. It highlights the relationships between preferences over dispositions, preferences over rules, and preferences over social outcomes. And, it explicates the difference between consequential and expressive preferences. Third, the survey delineates the separate strands of SOP models. It suggests new possibilities for this seemingly well-explored line of inquiry. Fourth, the discussion of voting emphasizes the peculiar characteristics of the Supreme Court’s voting rule. The survey maps the movement from early models that ignored the special features of this rule, to more recent ones that embrace its features and explore the resulting (and unusual) incentive effects.