Decisions of Black Federal Judges Overturned more often than those of White Judges

Sunday, September 06, 2015
(photo: Getty Images)

It turns out that justice may not be blind.


African-Americans on the federal bench see their decisions overturned on appeal more frequently than those of white judges, according to a study (pdf) from the Harvard Kennedy School.


Research by Harvard’s Maya Sen shows that black judges’ decisions are overturned 10% more often than white judges’ decisions, even when accounting for differences in education, political views, experience and competence. Sen studied the personal characteristics of about 1,500 federal district judges and the cases they adjudicated from 2000 to 2012, and found that the difference added up to 2,800 cases that were decided differently.


“The reasons behind this persistent difference are not straightforward,” Sen wrote. “Although having blacks on the reviewing panel appears to attenuate the effect, there are too few black appeals court judges to make meaningful inferences. The difference appears not to be driven by black judges voting differently on certain cases. At best, we have suggestive evidence that black judges are more liberal than otherwise similar whites, but the fact that we can’t rule out that black judges’ increased reversal does not vary across conservative and liberal appeals panels casts doubt on this being the sole explanation.”


Sen also found that there appeared to be a qualitative difference between opinions written by black judges and those written by whites. There are also qualitative differences on how appeals courts evaluate black judges’ opinions compared to whites’.


Sen said that she found the implications of her study “striking.” Observing that recent U.S. presidents have made efforts to appoint judges from underrepresented groups with the goal of achieving fairer justice for minorities, Sen remarked that “the racial gap demonstrated here, however, calls into question whether the mere appointment of these individuals is enough. After all, if certain judges are being systematically over-turned more often, then this raises questions about their long-term impact on the law, legal precedent, and the legal system.”

-Steve Straehley, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

Is Justice Really Blind? Race and Reversal in U.S. Courts (by Maya Sen, Harvard Kennedy School) (pdf)

Judges: Does Race Affect How Often Rulings Are Reversed? (by Rachael Stephens and Denise-Marie Ordway, Journalist’s Resource)


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