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Jan. 27: Workplace Racial Harassment Decisions in US Federal Court Affected by Judges' Race, Study Finds


Mark Burd                           
Tepper School of Business                               
Patricia Lomando White
University of Pittsburgh

Workplace Racial Harassment Decisions in
US Federal Court Affected by Judges' Race, Study Finds  

Carnegie Mellon, University of Pittsburgh Research Pinpoints Impact of Race, Political Affiliation on Case Outcomes

PITTSBURGH—Long-held assumptions that the judicial decision-making process is always objective and color-blind are being challenged by new research conducted by the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. A study of hundreds of U.S. federal court cases shows that the race of federal judges frequently affects the outcome of cases in the area of workplace racial harassment.

The researchers found that African American judges — which currently represent about 11 percent of all federal court judges — rule in favor of the plaintiff nearly 46 percent of the time, more than twice as often as white judges (20.6 percent) and the overall average plaintiff success rate (22 percent). This finding is the result of an analysis of a randomly selected sample of 428 federal cases representing 40 percent of all reported workplace racial harassment cases from six federal circuits between 1981 and 2003. Robert E. Kelley of Carnegie Mellon and Pat Chew of Pitt conducted the study.

"These findings reveal that judges do not always leave race at the door when entering the courtroom," said Kelley, an adjunct professor of organizational and behavioral theory at the Tepper School. "Rather, differences in their social and cultural experiences due to race can influence their interpretation of laws."

Pinpointing the Impact of Race, Political Affiliation and Case Characteristics

The study — titled "Myth of the Color-Blind Judge: An Empirical Analysis of Racial Harassment Cases" — offers important insight into specific ways that factors such as race or political affiliation can impact the judicial decision-making process, according to the authors. For example, African American and white judges exhibited similar decision-making patterns in overt cases that involved racial slurs, ruling for the plaintiff 30 and 34 percent more often, respectively, when compared to cases without racial slurs. However, other types of overt cases — such as those involving harassment by supervisors and co-workers — resulted in white judges ruling in favor of plaintiffs 81 percent more often, but a less than 1 percent increase in plaintiff rulings from African American judges.
Chew, professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, speculates that this disparity results from the difference in how white and African American judges perceive racial harassment. "Our data suggests it is not the workplace racial harassment in and of itself that is responsible for the dissimilarities in how judges of different races decide these cases," she said. "Neither group is inattentive to legal principles; they simply differ in their interpretation and understanding of the dispute."
Interestingly, the study also found that a judge's gender had almost no impact on outcomes of cases involving workplace racial harassment. However, political affiliation — a deciding factor in how judges are appointed — did have a significant impact, particularly for white judges. Those appointed by Democrats found for the plaintiff 27.1 percent of the time, while plaintiffs who came before Republican-appointed white judges won only 16.6 percent of the time. Political affiliation proved much less a factor than race for African American judges, with Democrat-appointed judges ruling for the plaintiff about 47 percent of the time while Republican appointees finding for the plaintiff about 43 percent of the time.

The Case for a More Diverse Judiciary

Chew and Kelley believe that an underlying value of the study is its demonstration of the ability of judges to more keenly appreciate the perspective of plaintiffs who come from similar racial backgrounds. "The experiences of minority judges affords them valuable knowledge, perspective and understanding of minority plaintiffs and the subtle — rather than blatant — forms of discrimination that can be more prevalent today," Kelley said. "If as a country we truly believe in judicial fairness, a more diverse bench is a good place to start, as it could increase the impartiality of the judicial system and yield more equitable legal outcomes."
While the study's sample of federal judges from Asian American, Native American and other racial and ethnic groups was too small to make meaningful observations, the authors speculate that a broader analysis would document similar patterns of decision-making based on racial knowledge and experience for those groups.  
The study, forthcoming in the Washington University Law Review published by Washington University in St. Louis, is part of a stream of research by Kelley and Chew on racial harassment in the workplace. A PDF version is available for download at