A recent study conducted by Maya Sen, a political scientist at the University of Rochester, and Adam Glynn, a government professor at Harvard, shows that judges who have at least one female child may be more likely to rule in favor of women in certain types of cases. The report “Identifying Judicial Empathy: Does Having Daughters Cause Judges to Rule for Women’s Issues?” finds that having at least one daughter corresponds to a 7 percent increase in the proportion of cases in which a judge will vote in a feminist direction. The study further finds that having one daughter as opposed to one son is linked to a 16 percent increase in the proportion of “gender-related cases decided in a feminist direction.” The study found the “daughter effect” was more dramatic in judges appointed by Republican presidents than in those appointed by Democrats.
Sen told the New York Times in a recent interview, “By having at least one daughter, judges learn what it’s like to be a woman, perhaps a young woman, who might have to deal with issues like equity in terms of pay, university admissions or taking care of children.” Sen and Glynn consider other causal explanations for their findings, but conclude that learning is the mechanism at play. For example, they rule out the possibility that parents of daughters feel compelled to rule in ways that would protect their female children Sen and Glynn saw an effect only in gender-related civil cases, not a conservative shift among gender-related criminal cases like sexual assault.
The problem with the study is not that the data are wrong. The problem is that too often those who use data like these mean to either exempt the judgments from moral consequence altogether or to praise particular judicial motivations that they happen to like. In the first instance, they justify legal realism with data, omitting any reflection on whether the observed effects can or should be minimized. They gloss over too the overwhelming number of cases that are decided by mundane, less-subjective methods. In the second variation, they celebrate the phenomenon as “empathy” with some results, while condemning it as “bias” in others . . . .