How we judge the judges

Emeritus Professor Norman Feather

Criticism of sentences and the judges who hand them down reflects the public’s own values, and if the public perceives large discrepancies between a judge’s values and their own, the legitimacy of judicial authority is likely to come into question.

A national research project by Flinders psychologist Emeritus Professor Norman Feather and Dr Robert Boeckmann (now of the University of Alaska) used questionnaires to gauge public perceptions of the seriousness of offences and the severity of sentencing, using two different criminal settings.

“Our project looked at what factors determine when an authority is perceived as legitimate in the sense that the authority is deferred to, obeyed and respected,” Professor Feather said.

Based on responses from 407 participants, the research also examined how the universal and specific values respondents identified with influenced their perceptions of judicial values and legitimacy.

One of the hypothetical cases involved a date rape, while the other was a case of criminal damage by an environmental protestor. In the fictitious scenarios, three alternate levels of sentencing – lenient, average and strict – presented a variety of judicial approaches.

As the researchers had predicted, the more heinous crime (the date rape) produced a more uniform and hard-line response from participants.

“Participants were more likely to perceive more value discrepancy and less legitimacy when a judge or magistrate viewed the date rape as less serious than they did themselves, and when the judge handed down a lenient rather than a strict sentence,” Professor Feather said.

In the case of the less serious crime, there was less consensus in terms of values and hence about the seriousness of the crime, and also more variation about appropriate punishment.

“For the green protest offence, the public may be more tolerant of judgements with which they disagreed and are less likely to criticise the legitimacy of the judge,” Professor Feather said.

The respondents also considered legitimacy to be higher when the authorities were seen to be high in expertise and to follow procedural justice.

The study contributes to a growing body of research literature exploring the psychology of the legitimacy of authority.

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