Gavel and handcuffs

Using Appellate Decisions and Algorithms to Advance Judicial Transparency

A new report analyzes New York appellate decisions decreasing sentences in order to identify judges that frequently hand down unduly harsh punishments.


In the heart of a vibrant democracy lies the imperative for transparency and accountability, most crucially within the judiciary. Traditionally shrouded in legalese and procedural intricacies, the inner workings of our courts often remain opaque to the public eye. Yet, in a system where judges wield significant power over the lives of individuals and the fabric of society, understanding their decisions is not merely beneficial — it is essential.

A new report, Excessive Sentencers, introduces a replicable and scalable model for illuminating the intricacies of judicial decision-making and its impacts. In the report, co-authored by Scrutinize (where I am executive director) and the NYU Law’s Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law, we used algorithms to sift through over 27,000 appellate decisions from New York’s principal intermediate appellate courts. Our goal was to identify instances where the appellate court, utilizing its statutory discretion, reduced prison sentences after deeming them excessive. From this data, we were able to determine which lower court judges imposed excessive sentences, identify those who repeatedly handed down such sentences, and calculate the degree to which their sentences were reduced.

We discovered that 12 judges, each with five or more instances of excessive sentencing, had their imposed sentences collectively reduced by a staggering 1,246 years. Additionally, two judges alone accounted for a total of 39 instances of excessive sentencing, with the appellate court reducing the sentences they imposed by a combined 684.5 years.

To ensure our findings reach and resonate with a broad audience, the report presents them in a clear, searchable table. This format enables anyone — voters, judicial committees, or appointing authorities like the governor and New York City mayor — to easily look up a judge’s name and discover both the number of excessive sentences and the total years reduced by the appellate court. By boiling down complex legal jurisprudence and terminology into an accessible and intuitive format — a table of numbers — we not only shed light on the decisions of individual judges but also enhance the likelihood of engaging a broader public audience.

Leveraging appellate decisions to enhance judicial transparency offers additional benefits. First, appellate decisions are, to the best of our knowledge, publicly accessible in most jurisdictions. This availability allows our method to be widely used, even where the state court system is less transparent and reluctant to disclose its internal data.

Second, our method’s strength lies in its foundational reliance on the judgments of appellate judges. Appellate judges, rather than researchers or transparency advocates, identified certain sentences as excessively punitive, necessitating appellate intervention. Thus, the legitimacy of any metric or analysis based on appellate decisions comes with the authoritative weight of seasoned insiders: judges themselves.

Utilizing appellate decisions as a data source extends well beyond examining excessive sentences or discretionary exercises of jurisdiction, as in our Excessive Sentencers report. Appellate decisions are rich with opportunities to explore various aspects of judicial decision-making and its effects, from reversal rates to rulings on substantive legal issues. Moreover, this approach is not confined to analyzing lower court judges alone. For instance, our data from New York also captures the names of appellate judges, enabling analyses of their voting behaviors either broadly or when faced with specific factual patterns or legal questions. Consequently, this method provides a comprehensive tool for identifying judicial practice patterns across individual judges, courts, and jurisdictions, in both criminal and civil courts.

As public scrutiny of state courts and judiciaries intensifies, these institutions must acknowledge that transparency in their operations is not merely optional, but imperative. Without it, they risk undermining their legitimacy and eroding public trust in their fairness. Fortunately, advancements in technology, such as artificial intelligence and other tools, have significantly reduced barriers to processing vast amounts of textual data and making it available to the public. By embracing transparency as an essential component of their function, courts and judiciary can foster greater trust and engagement from the public.

Oded Oren is the founder and executive director of Scrutinize, which uses innovative and scalable data-informed tools to advocate for judicial accountability.





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