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Research News at Vanderbilt

An angry judge can be a good judge

by | Posted on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 — 12:00 PM

Is an angry judge a bad judge?

Not necessarily, says law professor Terry Maroney of Vanderbilt University Law School.

“Anger is the quintessentially judicial emotion,” Maroney says. “It involves appraisal of wrongdoing, attribution of blame and assignment of punishment – precisely what we ask of judges.”

Terry Maroney (Vanderbilt Law School)

That assertion goes against the grain of the conventional view – that judges should not have emotions, and if they do, they should do everything in their power to overcome them.

United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor articulated that conventional view in her 2009 confirmation hearings. Then-nominee Sotomayor was responding to an accusation that she took an overly “empathetic” approach, promoting a nationwide debate.

“We’re not robots (who) listen to evidence and don’t have feelings,” Sotomayor testified. “We have to recognize those feelings and put them aside.”

The reality is more nuanced, particularly for anger, Maroney believes.

In her new article “Angry Judges,” published by the Vanderbilt Law Review, Maroney maps out a path for making good use of anger.

“Righteously angry judges,” she argues, “acknowledge and manage anger in a way that makes them more effective.”

Anger is not always good for judges, Maroney acknowledges. For example, a video captured by the Louisville Courier-Journal and widely circulated on the Internet shows a Kentucky judge furiously berating an attorney who appears simply to be doing his job on behalf of a death row prisoner.

“Anger seems to pose a danger to the neutral, careful decision making we expect of judges,” Maroney writes. It can be “associated with aggression, impulsivity and irrationality.”

Maroney culls evidence from legal opinions, media reports and even YouTube videos to catalog a startling array of bad behavior, ranging from insulting lawyers and litigants to yelling at – and, in one instance, allegedly choking – other judges.

On the other hand, judges “act as society’s anger surrogates,” Maroney says. “We expect them to feel and express anger on our behalf; for example, when sentencing someone like Bernie Madoff, who destroyed lives with a massive financial fraud.”

Maroney draws insights from psychology, philosophy and even neuroscience to demonstrate that anger also can help a judge recognize wrongdoing, communicate authority and make difficult decisions.

So how can judges avoid anger’s dangers without forfeiting its benefits?

Maroney finds a reconciliation of these competing forces in Aristotle’s concept of “virtuous anger.” The righteously angry judge, she writes, is a virtuous judge: he or she gets angry for good reasons, experiences and expresses that anger in a well-regulated manner, and uses anger to motivate and carry out the tasks within his or her authority.

Maroney’s message is finding a receptive audience among judges: she recently has begun a series of judicial trainings, both in the United States and France.

In these trainings she suggests that a judge who recognizes and carefully processes his or her emotions, including anger, is a better judge than one who tries to suppress feelings in the name of impartiality.

“The emotionless judge is a dangerous myth,” Maroney writes. “Judicial emotion cannot be eliminated, but it can be well-regulated. Righteously angry judges deserve not our condemnation but our approval.”

Contact:
Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS
jim.patterson@vanderbilt.edu