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Judges’ Decisions More Lenient After Lunch

• April 13, 2011 • 10:59 AM

Ordering in the court may be the new cry as a look at judges’ decisions made before and after lunch shows a wide difference in outcome.

In addition to showing up on time and not wearing loud ties, criminal defense attorneys would do well to think about the care and feeding of the judges who hear their clients’ cases.

A hungry, tired judge, it turns out, is much less likely to grant a defendant’s request than one who has just eaten or taken a break. At least that’s the finding of an ingenious new study looking at the rulings made by Israeli parole board judges in relation to when they had taken a meal break.

Overall, prisoners saw a 65 percent success rate if their cases were heard early in the workday or immediately after a judge had eaten, but the number of requests granted dropped to nearly zero just before a break period and at the end of the day.

“This is a pretty stark demonstration of how arbitrary things can be,” says co-author Jonathan Levav,  an associate professor at the Columbia Business School. “On the one hand, it confirms our intuition, and on the other hand it’s terrifying.”

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at 1,112 judicial rulings made by eight Israeli parole board judges over a 10-month period. Each judge heard between 14 and 35 cases in a day and took mid-morning and mid-afternoon meal breaks. The data included the time of day at which the prisoner’s request was considered and its place in the day’s docket.

Levav, who studies consumer behavior, says people often are unaware of subtle cues that influence their decisions. The defense lawyers and parole board members thought judges based their decisions on a wide variety of factors, a survey found, but no one mentioned the time of day at which a case was heard. “The key participants in the parole board have no intuition that this is happening,” Levav says.

That each hearing is conducted privately makes it harder to detect, he says. “It’s happening all the time, but as an attorney, you don’t get to see the proceedings before yours.”

The researchers don’t know whether the judges got grumpier because they grew tired or because they were hungry and their glucose levels were dropping. Most likely, Levav says, the effect is due to a combination of factors.

“It was a little bit serendipitous how this came about,” Levav says. “I’m not a legal scholar and neither was my co-author [Shai Danziger]. We just got lucky.”

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Michael Haederle
Michael Haederle lives in New Mexico. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, People Magazine, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and many other publications. He has also taught at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and is a Zen lay monk.

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