Justice is Blind …and Hungry!

Ponder this…based on the information below, do you want a judge deciding your co-parenting schedule or custody determination at all, even if it’s after the judge’s lunch break!?  It turns out that the time of day, and perhaps whether the judge had a snack or lunch before your hearing, appears to make a difference in judges decisions.

“Do you ever get that 2:30 feeling?” asks an energy drink commercial. “Tired? Groggy? Dying for a nap?” It turns out judges get that 2:30 feeling too, and when they do, you don’t want to be the defendant. Dr. Shai Danziger, a psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist from Ben Gurion University of the Negev, recently completed the most rigorous study of Israeli parole hearings ever conducted. His results were shocking: judges were far more likely to dole out lenient sentences after meal breaks and became increasingly harsh the longer they went without eating.  I wonder what the implication is here related to the timing (what time of day) of child protection cases and order for protection hearings?

The dotted lines on the graph (right) represent food breaks. As you can see, immediately after the judge’s morning snack break, they granted parole to 65% of cases. Then the proportion of cases in which they granted parole dropped sharply and steadily until the peckish judges stopped granting parole almost entirely. Although the legally relevant details such as the prisoners’ behavior did affect decisions, they don’t account for the pattern above. Danziger controlled for every possible variable, but nothing explained the trend: sentences weren’t affected by race, gender, or even what crime the prisoner committed. The judges had no knowledge about the cases ahead of time, so it’s not possible that they scheduled cases in any particular order. Danziger also demonstrated that this trend wasn’t due to any sort of subconscious inclination to dole out a certain number of harsh judgments, nor to a tendency to take breaks after harsher cases.

Judges were just in a better mood after lunch, and that’s all there is to it. It is well documented that in the US, African Americans receive harsher punishments than whites, all other factors held equal. But Danziger’s study suggests that even if we were somehow able to eliminate all discrimination, justice would still quite often be disturbingly arbitrary. If something as simple as the time since their last meal affects judicial decisions to such a great extent, imagine what other factors in the judges’ lives are randomly tipping the scales of justice. Judges are people too: they get divorces, they get put on hold with their credit card companies, they have fights with their teenagers, they get that intense urge to sneeze but then can’t sneeze all of a sudden (so frustrating!) If being a little hungry can make a judge less likely to grant somebody parole, could having an annoying Taylor Swift song stuck in their head during a child support contempt hearing make them more likely to put the defendant in jail? And just imagine the fate of the poor sap whose trial is held just after the judge’s computer has crashed.

Judges like to think their decisions are based on a consistent application of the law. Ideally, the court could just input the variables of the case into a computer that would spit out the same court order every time. Judges do everything they can to eliminate the foibles of human judgement from their decisions. But fundamentally, human judgement is really the only thing that defines this enigmatic invention we call “justice.” Therefore, all the human imperfections and irrationality that we created our laws in order to control end up oozing into our supposedly rational application of those same laws. But we still want our judges to strive for impartiality (and it looks like Apple is still a long way off from developing the infallible iJustice computer judging system.) So what is a citizen to do? The only thing you can do: if you want the judge to be amicable, make sure your custody hearing gets scheduled after lunch.

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