March Madness on the Bench

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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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