Judicial Wisdom: The Process of Constructing Wise Decisions

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Surprisingly little research exists on the role of wisdom within legal decision making. To shed light on this topic, we interviewed 11 U.S. judges who were nominated by their peers for their legal wisdom. They were asked to describe their experience of wise legal decision making and the qualities and processes they felt characterize wise judges. Their interviews were subjected to a grounded theory analysis to develop an understanding of the psychological processes and interpersonal performances that constitute wise legal decision making. Among other findings, results identified attitudes in judges that were thought to lead to better decisions, such as an attitude of curiosity. They identified courtroom management styles that were characterized by magnanimity and compassion as instilling public faith in the system, in contrast to a distant or overly adversarial tone. They tended to agree that, when possible and within the confines of the law, rulings oriented toward rehabilitation were preferable to punitive ones. As well, wise judges described the ways they managed personal challenges arising from value conflicts or ambiguous evidence when making decisions. The article provides clarity on the meanings of the termwisdomwithin the judicial profession and its construction within the alternative discourses of retributive and procedural justice.


Journal of Constructivist Psychology, Taylor & Francis