March 30, 2011 Articles

Does "Motivated Reasoning" Help Explain How Judges Decide Cases?

In her book, Eileen Braman asks, are judges' decisions best explained by personal inclinations or legal authority? The answer likely involves a complex interplay of both.

By Steve Sanders

Five federal district courts have so far considered challenges to President Obama’s signature healthcare overhaul. Two decisions by Republican-appointed judges have declared a key provision of the law unconstitutional. But three decisions by Democratic appointees have rejected similar challenges. Commentators are beginning to ask: Are these decisions about law or politics?

Lawyers tend to assume that most of the work on how judges think about and decide cases is done in law schools. After all, that’s where we study legal doctrine and jurisprudence. But important insights about law and judicial decision making also come from other academic departments, particularly political science. One of the main contributions of political science has been attempting to test, explain, and understand whether and how political views and policy preferences affect a decision maker’s legal judgments.

Eileen Braman, associate professor of political science at Indiana University Bloomington, has done groundbreaking work in this area for her book Law, Politics & Perception: How Policy Preferences Influence Legal Reasoning, which recently won the American Political Science Association’s C. Herman Pritchett Award for best book on law and courts. In the book, Professor Braman confronts the question, are judges’ decisions best explained by personal inclinations or legal authority? She concludes that the answer likely involves a complex interplay of both.

Professor Braman answered questions about her work in the edited interview that follows.

Premium Content For:
  • Litigation Section
Join - Now