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In New Zealand, court decisions are fairly often taken to a higher court and got quashed / overturned. When this happens, the higher court judge would typically rule that the previous judge "erred" in this and that, and produce a significantly different result/ruling.

So, when a judge is found to have "erred" in their decision, does this somehow affect them? Do they get somehow penalised, fined, warned or otherwise receive something that would motivate them to not "err" again?

If they do not, (how) does the law protect people from biased/corrupt judges who would "err" intentionally — taking chances that their devious decisions will not be appealed against?

  • FWIW, as a minor point of terminology, the term "quashed" is usually used to refer to court process (e.g. a subpoena) or writs (e.g. orders to a law enforcement officer to do something) and not to appellate rulings regarding ordinary final judgments in criminal and civil legal cases, which are "reversed" or "overturned", but not "quashed", although it is conceivable that this is a difference in regional legal dialects. – ohwilleke Oct 22 '18 at 0:06
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Yes it affects them.

Judges are pursuing their vocation as a career and there are career paths within the judicial system just as there are in every other career. Screw up too many times and your career ends at your present level.

Judges are also professionals and most take professional pride in doing their jobs well. Having a decision overturned is professionally embarrassing.

As a matter of public policy, there is no sanction that is directly applied to the judge otherwise judges would be too cautious to make decisions. Anyone who makes professional decisions will get them wrong from time to time - they generally are not punished.

That said there are judicial errors that stem from making the wrong judgement (so to say) call and judicial errors that stem from royally screwing up. The former are far less damaging than the latter. For an example of the former, a judge is applying a relatively new statute for which there have been no other decisions and interprets the legislation in a reasonable way but one the appeal court disagrees with. For an example of the latter, deciding the matter on a basis which neither party put before the court and which the judge did not draw to the parties attention during the trial - as a common law country, the New Zealand legal system is adversarial: the court exists to decide the dispute between the parties on the basis the parties argue, not to go on a "frolic of its own".

In addition, appeal courts can only overrule a decision if the judge has made an error of law, not if they have made an error of fact. A judge is allowed to be wrong about the facts but not about the law. In practice, the distinction is not trivial.

In a jury trial, the jury decides the facts, the judge decides the law - appeals can only be on the basis of what the judge did, not on the basis of what the jury did (barring egregious misconduct by the jury). In a judge only trial the judge decides both but an appeal can only be on matters of law.

  • Can you please elaborate the line between judicial and professional errors? If a judge rules that evidence does not prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt when it well does from mere common sense and the higher court judge rules it does — would that be judicial or professional error? – Greendrake Oct 21 '18 at 7:39
  • @Greendrake In general, judges do not rule on guilt or innocence in criminal trials, juries do. Also, there is no difference. – Dale M Oct 21 '18 at 8:01
  • It depends on whether a competent judge would have avoided the error. It’s probably easier to give an example of an error that is clearly not embarrassing. Suppose there are two reasonable alternative interpretations of a statute and a trial judge chooses, as he or she is required to, the interpretation chosen by the Court of Appeal in a previous case. If the Supreme Court later adopts the other interpretation, the trial judge has erred but this does not reflect on his or her competence. – sjy Oct 21 '18 at 8:04
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In the U.S., the answer to this question would be no, it doesn't affect the judge at all, other than as a matter of personal pride. Judges cannot be removed from office or penalized in any way professionally for having their judgment reversed on appeal.

Indeed, about 99% of the time, if a decision of a judge is overturned on appeal, on remand, the case is returned to the same judge to render a decision in light of the appellate court opinion (something that is forbidden as a matter of course in appeals in a civil law system).

The New Zealand courts are probably different, because while they are in a common law tradition, New Zealand tends to follow British practices more closely where judges are civil servants and promoted within a civil service type system (without direct accountability to a government department head) that might consider excessive reversals, rather than being promoted in a political or quasi-political process as they are in the United States.

If they do not, (how) does the law protect people from biased/corrupt judges who would "err" intentionally — taking chances that their devious decisions will not be appealed against?

In the United States, this is a serious problem and the sole recourse is to appeal the decision.

  • So if a judge in the US makes a flagrantly blatant and ridiculously unjust decision (later overturned), would they not face any consequences apart from name&shame in public? – Greendrake Oct 21 '18 at 23:42
  • @Greendrake Correct. – ohwilleke Oct 21 '18 at 23:57
  • @Greendrake Note that there are very extreme examples of outright defiance of a higher court's appellate rulings that can have consequences. For example, when State Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore in Alabama proclaimed that rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court (which overruled his own rulings) had no effect in Alabama and sought to impose that on county clerks and judges in the state, that was grounds for judicial discipline and removal from office. But, that is qualitatively different from a flagrantly blatant and ridiculously unjust decision, not just grossly wrong, but actually openly defiant. – ohwilleke Oct 22 '18 at 0:13
  • The term ‘civil servant’ is inapt to describe a member of the judiciary in Commonwealth nations. It is true that judges are normally not elected, but the judiciary is not part of the civil service – that refers to part of the executive government. Unlike a civil servant, a judge is not accountable to a minister of the Crown. The Commonwealth system is much more like the US system than the civil law tradition of career judges. – sjy Oct 23 '18 at 11:38
  • @sjy Fair enough. I was using the word "civil servant" to contrast with "political appointee or elected official" which is what almost all U.S. judges are. Also, my understanding is that in most Commonwealth nations, serving as a judge is not necessarily a second career and has a likelihood of moving up the career ladder, while almost all U.S. judges have successful careers as lawyers before being appointed and for most their first appointment is a terminal position with no likelihood of or expectation of promotion. – ohwilleke Oct 23 '18 at 18:24

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