American judges, and especially lifetime-appointed federal judges, are often revered as the pinnacle of objectivity, possessing a deep commitment to fairness, and driven to seek justice as they interpret federal laws and the U.S. Constitution. As these judges struggle with some of the great challenges of the modern legal world, empirical scholars must seek to fully understand the role of implicit bias in judicial decision-making. Research from the field of implicit social cognition has long documented negative implicit biases towards a wide range of group members, some of whom may well be harmed in various ways across the legal system. Unfortunately, legal scholarship, and particularly empirical legal scholarship, has lagged behind in terms of investigating how implicit biases, beyond Black and White, may lead to unfair outcomes in a range of legal areas, including those relevant to judges’ potentially landmark legal decisions.
This Article proposes, and then empirically tests, the proposition that even today negative implicit biases may manifest in federal and state judges against even so-called privileged minorities, such as Asian- Americans and Jews. We present the results of an original empirical study we conducted on 239 sitting federal and state judges (including 100 federal district judges representing all Circuits) and consider the ways in which these judicial implicit biases may manifest. The study found that the judges harbored strong to moderate negative implicit stereotypes against Asian-Americans and Jews, while holding favorable implicit stereotypes towards Whites and Christians. These negative stereotypes associate Asians and Jews with immoral traits, such as “greedy,” “dishonest,” and “controlling,” and associate Whites and Christians with moral traits, such as “trustworthy,” “honest,” and “giving.” The study further found that federal district court judges sentenced Jewish defendants to marginally longer prison terms than identical Christian defendants and that implicit bias was likely the cause of the disparity.
This Article suggests, and the empirical study supports the claim, that automatic biases and cognitions indeed influence a much broader range of judicial decisions than has previously been considered.