In a market every shop has an incentive to charge a fair price: Charge too little, they go bankrupt. Charge too much and they won't sell anything.

What mechanisms exist to encourage judges to rule justly, or to avoid ruling based on other interests than the law?

  • Judges are not subject to economic incentive because their financial gain does not depend on the outcome of any trial (absent corruption, of course).
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 16:29
  • For example, one mechanism I know is that those who are not satisfied can appeal. That seems like a control mechanism.
    – user4951
    Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 22:23
  • In political mechanisms every government has an incentive to rule justly. Be too lenient and everybody will kill each other. Be too strict and everybody will kill you.
    – Patrick87
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 19:12
  • I think one judge in the USA got 28 years in jail for putting young offenders to jail that didn’t belong there, out of financial interest. That’s a motivation. As a judge you’re hard to fire, but it would be as good as impossible to get a new job sweeping the streets as a fired judge.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 7:56
  • @feetwet I think the edit from "market mechanism" to "free market" makes the question weaker. "Free market" introduces an extreme position vis-a-vis system of incentives into the question. Market mechanism exists even in regulated, and even in fully-controlled, markets.
    – grovkin
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 8:25

3 Answers 3


Motivation can reasonably be reduced to the question "What's in it for me?". If you conclude that an action is contrary to your interests (however conceived), you won't be motivated (moved) to take the action. What constitutes being "in your interest" depends largely on your value system (plus lots of philosophical stuff that we don't have space to discuss). One motivation is reducible to the question "How much money can I get?"; a distinct motivation is "What is right (proper)?" A third version is "How can I be upheld most often?". The first of these is generally abjured as corruption, although it is a real factor in some jurisdictions. The third alternative is a variant of the first, which we generally recognize as being a form of immoral corruption (since the value gained is money).

As for judges who rule in a particular way because that is how they can be upheld most often, that is a variant of the first motivation, which we understand as being economic corruption: rather than gaining dollars (rupee, yuan etc) they gain approval units. Which leaves us with judges that decide based on what is proper. In other words, the matter can be reduced to the choice "Do I decided based on what is?", versus "Do I decide based on what I want?".

As it happens, the notion of "being just" is extremely variable, since there is no generally-accepted understanding of what "justice" even means. Thus appeals to "justice" are pretty useless when it comes to understanding contemporary law.


You can always complain to the media (I exclude jurisdictions where that is prohibited by law, and there is also a problem that lawyers don't get to fully enjoy the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment). Some judges are elected, so if you can manufacture a sentiment that a judge is unjust, they might be a 1-term judge. There is no such mechanism for appointed judges (which are the majority, as far as I know in all jurisdictions). If they don't correctly apply the law, they might be overturned, and possibly in extreme cases removed (by higher judges). The only other stick is prosecution, which is reserved for certain corrupt actions and not for misapplication of legal principles.

  • I am thinking about how laws "force" the judges to be fair? What's in it for the judge to be fair? Can people complain to media if judge is not fair?
    – user4951
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 17:32
  • 1
    You lost me end of first into second paragraph. Are you saying "ruling to minimize the probability of being overturned" is immoral in the same way as "ruling to maximize my income?"
    – feetwet
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 21:18
  • Yes, in that, in both cases, you are acting contrary to the proper nature of being a judge (deciding objectively according to the facts and law), and instead are acting in whatever way gives you some form of profit. That would be dishonest (thus immoral). Of course, one is free to challenge my theory of morality.
    – user6726
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 2:14
  • 2
    Like the answer, but needs a little more copy editing. On this question: I would think that disregarding common jurisprudence would be the height of hubris. Since the goal is to produce "just" rulings, and, as you point out, that's a very vague and subjective goal, the closest real metric available is whether more experienced judges (often in panels, and supported with more staff) support your opinions. If you're frequently overturned then a priori the most probable explanation is that you are not being just; not that you are exceptionally just and everyone else is inept and/or corrupt.
    – feetwet
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 3:57
  • I resist social characterizations of true and false, and also disagree that justice is actually subjective. The most plausible explanation for being frequently overturned is, IMO, that you don't share the majority ideology. I don't really know whether being right in the face of socially-sanctioned falsehood is hubris, but if it is, I approve of hubris. The central question is, what is just? What is justice? I say, treating the same facts in the same way. However, my judgment is that actual justice is hard to find (hence the distinction justice vs. "justice")
    – user6726
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 4:31

What mechanisms exist to encourage judges to rule justly, or to avoid ruling based on other interests than the law?

The answer depends largely upon the system for appointing judges.

System 1: About half of the states elect judges. In such a system, election is one of the motivating factors.

System 2: I'll use New Jersey to illustrates this. Judges are appointed but there are only two types of appointments: Supreme Court and all others. In the all other category there are different judicial roles:

  1. Appellate
  2. Criminal
  3. Civil
  4. Family
  5. Chancery
  6. Chief Judge

The Supreme Court assigns the judges to specific rules. Some roles are considered more prestigious or powerful or or more interest. Being a chief judge, appellate division judge, or chancery judge is generally considered more prestigious roles. Many judges consider family court to be purgatory while others love family. Judges are motivated to develop a reputation that will allow them to move into roles that that like.

System 3: Judges are appointed to specific roles. The federal system is one example. In that system, there really are no mechanisms for reigning in judges, especially those who are not interested in a new appointment.

If a federal judge wants to be a nut case, there is nothing that can really be done.


Basic rule of thumb when it comes to judges addressing facts is a judge wears what is called "13th juror" hat - the controlling doctrine is "reasonable person" a jury is considered a reasonable person (judge's view of facts are controlled by "reasonable person's view" so would a reasonable person agree or disagree with your contentions which boils down to the art of the argument -

the saying, "the play is the thing we shall use to influence the consciousness of the king." that is one I like to explain the art of the argument (are you believe able would a reasonable person agree with your stance - as far as law that too rest greatly in one's research, on point case law - there is always more research that can be done on a case - more time to read, rest and reflect to advance one's understanding and use of relevant case law to set certain facts as fixed and so on - complexity of common sense etc., rest in the beauty of law

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