The extent to which a judge’s personal background influences his or her decision-making is a matter of debate. Before being appointed to the United States Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor remarked that “[p]ersonal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see” and gave a speech declaring that the ethnicity and sex of a judge “may and will make a difference in judging.” Judge (now Justice) Sotomayor’s comments sparked some criticism, as noted in an article by Charlie Savage in the New York Times, here.
Though most appellate judges strive to be unbiased, it is probably true that, at some level, a judge’s personal experiences make a difference in how he or she views a case. At the very least, to adequately prepare a case for appeal, it is important to learn as much as possible about the judges who will decide the case.
A recent decision from the Idaho Supreme Court, discussed here, perhaps illustrates that point. Justice Jim Jones wrote a special concurrence in which he shared some of his family history. See Hilliard v. Murphy Land Company, LLC, No. 42093-2014 (May 21, 2015).
In his concurrence, Justice Jones wrote: “Although I make no claim to be an expert of any sort on the economics of potatoes or other crops, I did manage to learn a bit from my father, Henry Jones, who was as good a potato grower as has ever tilled the soil of southern Idaho. The loss claimed by [the purchaser], exceeding $3 million, certainly appears to be excessive.”
While Justice Jones’ personal experience did not affect the outcome in Hilliard, it provides an interesting insight into his background. More importantly, it illustrates the importance of knowing the styles and inclinations of the appellate judges who will decide the appeal.