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James Boyd
IU Maurer School of Law

Charles Geyh
IU Maurer School of Law

Last modified: Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Judges, academics differ on judicial decision-making

April 1, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana Supreme Court Justice Frank Sullivan said he usually takes three different approaches into consideration when deciding the outcome of a pending case. He tries to address constitutional issues only when necessary; he considers how he believes lawmakers would want legislation interpreted; and finally, in common law issues, Sullivan looks for neutral principles that bear on the issue.

Sullivan's explanation was part of a two-day conference hosted by the Indiana University Maurer School of Law titled "What's Law Got to Do With It?: What Judges Do and Why It Matters." The conference brought together political scientists and lawyers, and featured an interactive panel with state and federal judges to discuss how judicial officials make their decisions.

While some academics theorize that it is possible to predict a case's likely outcome based on such things as the judge's voting record, political party and ideological predilections, the judges said there was more to it than that.

"I really do think the best way we can predict what a judge is going to do is by examining the writing and reading and looking into how the judge thinks and decides," Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Nancy Vaidik told academics working on various models to predict judges' votes. "I hope you can do it, but I think judicial behavior doesn't fit perfectly into perfectly shaped models."

Charles Geyh

Photo by: Ann Schertz

Charles Geyh

Print-Quality Photo

Sullivan and Vaidik were joined by Judge Sarah Evans Barker, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Indiana, and Indiana Law professor Charlie Geyh, who served as moderator of the event.

Barker said it is important to take regional differences into consideration when looking at a judge's record. "A judge in southern Indiana is going to see things differently than a judge in Florida," she said.

Geyh, the John F. Kimberling Professor of Law, said the conference exposed differences between the academics and judges, but fostered an environment where the two sides could explore their points of view.

"For a long time, the debate over this issue was presented as an either-or proposition," he said. "Do judges follow the law, or do they follow their ideological predilections? Recent interdisciplinary research corroborates the common-sense view that judicial decision-making is more complicated than that and is subject to an array of influences. By bringing together scholars and the judges who make the decisions, we were able to have a free-flowing exchange of ideas. I think both the judges and the academics came away with a greater understanding of one another."

The conference featured more than 25 scholars from across the country, and was sponsored by the Joyce Foundation.