Let My People Go: Ethnic In-Group Bias in Judicial Decisions—Evidence from a Randomized Natural Experiment


  • Earlier versions of this article were presented at faculty seminars of the Hebrew University Law Faculty, and Economics Department, Bar Ilan University, Faculty of Law, the Israeli Association of Law and Society 2008 Annual Conference, and at the conference “Empirical Studies of Criminal and Civil Procedures” at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, May 2008. We are grateful for the suggestions and comments made there, and for comments by Adi Ayal, Momi Dahan, Ted Eisenberg, Gideon Fishman, Micha Mandel, Jacob Nussim, Danny Pfeffermann, Jeff Rachlinski, Doron Teichman, Yoram Shachar, Ron Shapira, Tamir Sheafer, Keren Weinshall-Margel, David Weisburd, Gadi Wolfsfeld, and Asaf Zussman. Funding for this study was provided by the Minerva Center for Human Rights at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Additionally, we thank Roni Factor for his advice and assistance with the data analysis, Gal Einav and Attalla Shubash for collecting the data, and Yovav Eshet for research assistance. Any faults that remain are, of course, our own.

Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Political Science Department, and Federmann School of Public Policy, Mount Scopus 91905, Israel; email: raulke@huji.ac.il. Gazal-Ayal is Senior Lecturer, University of Haifa, Faculty of Law; Sulitzeanu-Kenan is Lecturer, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Political Science Department, and Federmann School of Public Policy.


Does ethnic identity affect judicial decisions? We provide new evidence on ethnic biases in judicial behavior by examining the decisions of Arab and Jewish judges in first bail hearings of Arab and Jewish suspects in Israeli courts. Our setting avoids the potential bias from unobservable case characteristics by exploiting the random assignment of judges to cases during weekends and by focusing on the difference in ethnic disparity between Arab and Jewish judges. The study concentrates on the early-stage decisions in the judicial criminal process, controlling for the state's position and excluding agreements, thereby allowing us to distinguish judicial bias from other sources of ethnic disparities. We find systematic evidence of in-group (same ethnic group) bias in detention decisions. However, in cases where the decision is to detain, no ethnic bias was found in the length of the detention. Possible interpretations and implications of these findings are discussed.