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Lay Judgments of Judicial Decision Making


  • The authors thank Janice Nadler and Tom Tyler for helpful comments.

Dan Simon, Gould School of Law, University of Southern California, 699 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90089-0071; email: Simon is Professor of Law and Psychology at Gould School of Law and Department of Psychology, University of Southern California; Scurich is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology, University of Southern California.


This study examined laypeople's evaluations of judicial decision making, specifically of the judicial decision-making process and the judiciary's legitimacy. Seven-hundred participants were presented with three judicial decisions, which were portrayed as following on the heels of solid and appropriate legal procedure. Each decision was accompanied by one of four types of reasoning. Participants were asked to evaluate the acceptability of the decisions, focusing on the manner in which they were made and to evaluate the legitimacy of the decisionmaker, all regardless of their outcomes. The study yielded four findings. First, laypeople's judgments were highly contingent on the outcome of the judges' decisions. Consistent with the theory of motivated reasoning, participants found the decisions highly acceptable when they agreed with the judges' decision, but deemed them relatively unacceptable when they disagreed with them. Second, participants were indifferent to the modes of reasoning offered by the judges when they agreed with the outcomes of the decisions, but were differentially sensitive to the modes of reasoning when the judges' decisions frustrated their preferred outcomes. Third, when participants were sensitive to the modes of reasoning, they gave higher ratings of acceptability to decisions that openly admitted to good reasons on both sides of the case as compared with decisions accompanied by reasons that supported one side of the case exclusively. Giving no reasons at all was found to be more acceptable than giving a single, curt reason. Fourth, the findings replicated the coherence effect. Implications for the legitimacy of the judiciary are discussed.