March Madness on the Bench

Are judges distracted by the NCAA Basketball Tourney?


I have learned that the afternoon of the first Thursday of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is a really bad time to try and teach a class—at least without a fairly strict "no laptops or electronic devices" rule. For some students, the temptation to peek at how their bracket is doing is simply too great.

Might judges also be distracted during "March Madness"? A new paper in the Journal of Legal Studies, "Estimating the Effect of Leisure on Judicial Performance" by
Tom S. Clark, Benjamin G. Engst, and Jeffrey K. Staton, suggests they might be. Here's the abstract:

Past research suggests that natural preferences for leisure influence the ways in which federal judges carry out their work. We consider the extent to which incentives for leisure reduce the speed with which judges work and the quality of their output. We take advantage of a natural experiment caused by an annual sporting event that creates differential distractions across judges. Using a difference-in-differences design, among federal courts of appeals judges we show that a judge's alma mater's participation in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Men's Basketball Tournament both slows the rate at which opinions are drafted and ultimately undermines the opinions' quality, even accounting for the additional time judges spend writing them. The findings suggest that incentives for leisure influence important normative concerns for swift and high-quality justice.

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  1. Shouldn’t they look at the law clerks’ brackets?

  2. I know a fair number of doctors, at least four, who chose medicine because they knew it was a field where they didn’t have to talk about or follow sports. The way we select Judges in this country, whether by appointment, election, or special commission is not going tonfavor such candidates.

    1. Could you explain this? I could see any public office, whether appointed or elected, requiring schmoozing with the public and pretending to care about local teams. What does this have to do with judges vs doctors? You think doctors don’t need to schmooze with staff or patients?

  3. I’m not sure this is a problem. I don’t think I’d want to have my fate hanging on a judge who was so wrapped up in his robe that he never took time off for anything fun.

    1. I guess that would depend on the nature and extent of the fun in question.

  4. “ultimately undermines the opinions’ quality”

    Uh huh. I really want to know how they measured that but the abstract doesn’t say and the article is behind a paywall.

  5. Judges are humans, went to college, and some of them like and are distracted by the NCAA basketball tourney? Study #1,452,871 in the file of “things I could have told you without a study.”

  6. There are a few studies out there on sentence disparities and local sports team performance. Opinion quality, whatever that might be, might be from the clerks having a few extra windows open on the laptop.

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