Essays in Empirical Law and Economics
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Federal judicial vacancies are an ever increasing issue in the public sphere with 14% of federal judgeship positions currently unfilled concurrently with increases in aggregate levels of caseloads. Despite concerns as to the adverse consequences of judicial vacancies, research about their effects has remained scant due to the difficulties of specifying the causal mechanism between vacancies and judicial decision-making. Consequently, courts are left with a lower supply of the necessary tools to handle the increased demand for services. In my first chapter, I examine the effect of judicial vacancies on sentencing outcomes in district courts in the United States of America. I make use of an instrumental variables strategy in order to estimate a causal relationship. Specifically, the first instrument which is used in this paper uses judge deaths while the second instrument makes use of a judge’s eligibility for senior status in order to explain the vacancy rate. My findings show that for a district with ten allocated judgeship positions, a vacancy present throughout the length of a case will result in sentence lengths that are 2 months longer on average due to a 4% decrease in downward departures and a 4% increase in sentences at the Guideline minimum. Moreover, for defendant characteristics which predict recidivism, here age, gender and criminal history, the effect is even larger. These effects highlight the problems associated with persistent vacancies at the district level. To assess one of the policies adopted in order to handle vacancies which might have especially deleterious effects on federal district courts, I evaluate the effect of designating a vacancy as an “emergency” on durational and judge quality outcomes in my second chapter. Here I make use of a policy rule to find causal estimates with a regression discontinuity strategy. Estimating the duration of vacancies slightly above and below the cutoff rule I find no effects of the cutoff on durational outcomes. Furthermore, there are effects on judge quality measures in that judges above the cutoff have slightly worse law school rankings on average while maintaining marginally higher American Bar Association qualification scores. These results suggest that the policy is not having the intended effects of reducing the duration of vacancies.