The Civilizing Effect of Legal Training

The cultural cognition project has a new article out on how motivated cognition interacts with professionalism:

This paper reports the results of a study on whether political predispositions influence judicial decisionmaking. The study was designed to overcome the two principal limitations on existing empirical studies that purport to find such an influence: the use of nonexperimental methods to assess the decisions of actual judges; and the failure to use actual judges in ideologically-biased-reasoning experiments. The study involved a sample of sitting judges (n = 253), who, like members of a general public sample (n = 800), were culturally polarized on climate change, marijuana legalization and other contested issues. When the study subjects were assigned to analyze statutory interpretation problems, however, only the responses of the general-public subjects and not those of the judges varied in patterns that reflected the subjects’ cultural values. The responses of a sample of lawyers (n = 217) were also uninfluenced by their cultural values; the responses of a sample of law students (n = 284), in contrast, displayed a level of cultural bias only modestly less pronounced than that observed in the general-public sample. Among the competing hypotheses tested in the study, the results most supported the position that professional judgment imparted by legal training and experience confers resistance to identity-protective cognition — a dynamic associated with politically biased information processing generally — but only for decisions that involve legal reasoning. The scholarly and practical implications of the findings are discussed.

Kahan and I have gone back and forth about how best to characterize the results of the study. He, modestly, seeks to constrain the inferences to the data and to a push back against the vulgar understanding of the judiciary as merely housing politicians in robes.  I think the study speaks to something larger still — the value of legal education & experience in producing situation sense, which enables lawyers and judges (and, to a lesser extent, law students) to agree on the results of legal outcomes notwithstanding their political and ideological priors. Such legal judgment is, after all, one of the practical skills that law school conveys, and which it ought to boast about.

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1 Response

  1. Orin Kerr says:

    Cool article, Dave.