Applying new economics techniques to questions that the legal profession has been investigating for some time, Chicago law professor David Abrams has two clever papers that exploit the random assignment of judges to defendants, and lawyers to clients. Abstracts over the fold.
If anyone knows of an Australian court that properly randomises judicial assignments (not kinda-sorta-sometimes, but straight-out randomisation), then do let me know. There are plenty of open questions that this could help answer.
Do Judges Vary in Their Treatment of Race?
David S. Abrams and Marianne Bertrand
Does the legal system discriminate against minorities? Systematic racial differences in case characteristics, many unobservable, make this a difficult question to answer directly. In this paper, we estimate whether judges systematically differ in how they sentence minorities, avoiding potential bias from unobservables by exploiting the random assignment of cases to judges. We measure the between-judge variation in the difference in incarceration rates and sentence lengths between African-American and White defendants. We perform a Monte Carlo simulation in order to explicitly construct the appropriate counterfactual, where race does not influence judicial sentencing. In our data set, which includes felony cases from Cook County, Illinois, we find statistically significant between-judge variation in incarceration rates, although not in sentence lengths.
The Luck of the Draw: Using Random Case Assignment to Investigate Attorney Ability
David S. Abrams and Albert H. Yoon
One of the most challenging problems in legal scholarship is the measurement of attorney ability. Measuring attorney ability presents inherent challenges because the nonrandom pairing of attorney and client in most cases makes it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between attorney ability and case selection. Las Vegas felony case data, provided by the Clark County Office of the Public Defender in Nevada, offer a unique opportunity to compare attorney performance. The office assigns its incoming felony cases randomly among its pool of attorneys, thereby creating a natural experiment free from selection bias. We find substantial heterogeneity in attorney performance that cannot be explained simply by differences in case characteristics, and this heterogeneity correlates with attorneysâ€™ individual observable characteristics. Attorneys with longer tenure in the office achieve better outcomes for the client. We find that a veteran public defender with ten years of experience reduces the average length of incarceration by 17 percent relative to a public defender in her first year. While we find no statistical difference based on law school attended or gender, we find evidence that the public defenderâ€™s race correlates with sentence length, with Hispanic attorneys obtaining sentences that were up to 26 percent shorter on average than those obtained by black or white attorneys. We also find evidence suggesting that differences in sentencing may be driven partly by different plea bargaining behavior on the part of the public defenders.