The Downsides of Dispassionate Judges: A Theory of Costly Law Enforcement in District Courts

Politicians and judges regularly profess their view that judges should be “dispassionate” arbiters who are detached from the cases they hear. I present a formal model of district court adjudication that highlights the potential downsides associated with dispassionate judges. As long as all judges find reversals sufficiently costly (either due to professional concerns or increased workload), I show that dispassionate judges are less impartial and are lower quality adjudicators than issue motivated judges. I relate these findings to the context of employment discrimination law. The results underscore the importance of district judges’ effort in fact-finding and have implications for the ability of disadvantaged litigants to get a fair hearing in the courts. They also provide a new way to assess the benefits of diversifying the federal bench and provide a novel argument in favor of such diversification.