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Away From Home

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Judicial groupthink

Groupthink happens everywhere, even in the judicial system:

Here at the University of Chicago, we have something called the Chicago Judges Project, by which we tabulate and analyze thousands of votes of judges on federal courts of appeals. One of our key findings thus far is this: In many controversial areas (eg, affirmative action, campaign finance, sex discrimination, disability discrimination, environmental regulation, and more), Republican appointees show especially conservative voting patterns when they're sitting on 3-judge panels that consist only of Republican appointees. So too for Democratic appointees: They're far more liberal, in their voting patterns, when sitting with two fellow Democratic appointees, than when sitting on a panel with at least one Republican appointee. In other words, Republican appointees look more conservative when they sit only with fellow Republican appointees, and Democratic appointees look more liberal when they sit only with fellow Democratic appointees.

This is real-world evidence, we think, of group polarization: the process by which like-minded people, engaged in deliberation with one another, typically end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk. (So, for example, French people who distrust the US distrust the US even more after talking with one another.) Group polarization reflects a form of information aggregation, or at least opinion aggregation, that sometimes leads in unfortunate directions. It's a big contrast to the price system, Wikipedia, and open source software.

Regardless of whether or not this is a good thing (and I challenge any of you to cogently argue that it is), what do you think can be done about it (if anything)?

Having studied groupthink in my political science classes at KSU (thanks Dr. Pickering!), I'm not sure that we can stop the phenomenon, even on appeals courts. It's just too ingrained into human nature.

On the positive side, the system contains a check on the appeals courts: the Supreme Court. With its 9 members, there's much less of a chance that the Supreme Court will issue an extreme opinion, since there's almost always somebody willing to dissent. In fact, in order to get a unanimous Court, the opinion often has to be narrowed in scope (see, e.g., MGM v. Grokster).

That said, the depressing fact is that the Supreme Court only hears around 80 cases a year, out of the thousands of appealable cases. This means that the overwhelming majority of appeals court decisions are not reviewed, including the ones affected by groupthink.


  • Yes, judges can be affected by groupthink.

    Fortunately, reporters are immune to such things and always think on the individual level.


    Just Kidding. Now, everyone that almost choked to death with laughter when they read that: please raise your hand.

    By Blogger Logan C. Adams, at 7/19/2005 02:52:00 PM  

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