Theses Doctoral

Essays on Courts, Randomization, and Experiments

Thorley, Dane Ross

This dissertation comprises three chapters that explore and expand on the use of experimentation and randomization in the study of courts, judges, and the law:
Chapter 1: This Chapter reviews the two most prominent procedural approaches to addressing judicial conflicts of interest in U.S. courts—judicial self-recusal and in-court disclosure. These procedural approaches fail to account for the legal and institutional dynamics that surround the relationship between judges, attorneys, and the adjudicative process. I argue that judges do not recuse themselves, that attorneys will not ask them to, and that if we understand both the legal and extra-legal incentives at play in these decisions, this should not surprise us. The shortcomings of recusal and disclosure are particularly salient in the context of judicial campaign finance, where judges often face the acute dilemma of being assigned to preside over cases in which one of the parties or attorneys has contributed to their election campaign.
To support these claims, Chapter 1 presents the results of a randomized field experiment which I identify active Wisconsin and Texas civil cases that feature donor-attorneys. The experiment randomly assigns a portion of the judges presiding over these cases to receive a letter from an NGO identifying the potential conflict and requesting recusal. The empirical results support the growing skepticism surrounding judicial self-recusal and raise doubts that judicial disclosure is an efficacious remedy. Building on these results, the Chapter explores two potential alternatives—one procedural and one institutional—that better account for the realities of judicial conflicts of interest and the incentives of court actors.
Chapter 2: This Chapter contributes to the growing literature challenging the general assumption of and reliance on random judicial assignment by identifying common court procedures and practices that threaten unbiased causal inference. These “de-randomizing” events, including differing probabilities of assignment, post-assignment judicial changes, non-random missingness, and non-random assignment itself, should be accounted for when making causal claims but are commonly either ignored or not even recognized by researchers utilizing random judicial assignment. The Chapter explores how these de-randomizing events violate the key empirical assumptions underlying randomized studies and offers methodological solutions and presents original data from a survey of the 30 largest U.S. state-level criminal courts, outlining their assignment protocols and identifying the extent to which they feature the de-randomizing events described.
Chapter 3: In Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar (2015), the Supreme Court ruled that a Florida law banning direct campaign solicitation by judicial candidates was not a violation of the First Amendment. In doing so, the majority relied on several untested empirical claims, including the assertion that direct solicitation has a distinctly stronger impact on the public’s confidence in the judiciary than indirect solicitation. This chapter provides a short but focused evaluation of these empirical claims. A nationally-representative survey experiment presents subjects with a hypothetical vignette in which a state trial-level judge runs for election and utilizes one of various campaign fundraising tactics. The survey then presents subjects with questions relating to the trust and legitimacy that they associate with both the judicial system presented in the vignette and their actual state- and federal-level government institutions. The results suggest that the public does not discern any significant difference between direct and indirect judicial solicitation but does see other judicial campaign features (promises of recusal and the amount of the donations) as salient in regard to trust and legitimacy. These findings are at odds with the empirical assumptions that the majority relied upon in the Williams-Yulee decision and highlight the value that survey experiments can play in evaluating empirical claims made by the Supreme Court.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Lax, Jeffrey R.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 7, 2019