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The Role of Expertise in Legal Decision Making in Juvenile Dependency Cases: Comparing Judges to Mock Jurors
AdvisorMiller, Monica K.
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In child abuse cases, when the child has been removed from the parents' care, and has been in out of home placement for 15 of the last 22 months, the courts are required to file a petition to terminate parental rights. At the termination of parental rights (TPR) trial the judge must decide if it is in the best interest of the child for parental rights to be terminated. This is a difficult decision that will impact the lives of both the child and the family. Several states allow jury trials to decide if termination should occur (Szymanski, 2007). Yet, research has failed to address whether the use of juries is idyllic in child abuse cases. It could be argued that judges have a degree of expertise in legal decision making, as they have the requisite legal knowledge and experiences necessary to make informed decisions, thus making them better equipped to make decisions, particularly in complex and controversial cases such as child abuse. Further, there are many factors within a legal case, particularly a child abuse case, that might impact cognitive processing, and which could influence the outcome decision. The current study sought to identify judicial expertise factors that may impact decision making, determine how similar (or different) judges and mock jurors are in terms of their decision to terminate and decision making factors they identified, and determine if (and how) cognitive processing could explain the differences. To achieve these goals, the study was conducted in two phases. Phase I assessed different expertise factors in order to determine which factors, or combinations of factors, might constitute judicial expertise. Phase II assessed differences in expertise as it related to decision making. A mock TPR trial was constructed, and, as most termination trials end in termination of parental rights, case facts were manipulated to encourage participants to make a decision to not terminate parental rights. Participants were also asked about specific decision making factors, cognitive processing, and emotional reaction to the case. Phase I results revealed that there were no expertise variables which impacted the outcome decision or decision making factors; however, judges did demonstrate high levels of experience and training relating to child abuse and neglect cases. Therefore, the remaining analyses examined expertise in terms of a judge/mock juror dichotomy. Results of phase II of the study indicate that expertise (i.e., judge versus jurors) does impact some of the decision making factors. Judges perceive certain aspects of the case as less complex, are more likely to identify the anti-termination factors as relevant to decision making, and experience less negative emotion in response to the case as compared to mock jurors. Judges were also more likely to be rational processors when making decisions, as determined by multiple cognitive processing and disposition measures, including the Rational-Experiential Inventory, Cognitive-Experiential Self Theory measures, and a in-case processing measure of rational processing. While there was no main effect for expertise on outcome decisions, there was an interaction between expertise and anti-termination (e.g., experimental) factors. Judges were much more likely to rely on the information in their decision making. That is, judges who were in the anti-termination conditions were less likely to terminate than were jurors. Expertise also exhibited an indirect effect on case processing. There were also differences on multiple decision making factors and on the outcome decision based on cognitive processing. Rational processors perceived less risk of returning the child home, more risk of leaving the child in foster care, and were less likely to terminate parental rights. Further, several of the decision making factors mediated the relationship between rational processing and outcome. Based on these results, it was determined that expertise has multiple impacts decisions, including contextualized direct impacts on outcome decisions, as well as indirect impact by influencing rational processing, which in turn influences consideration of important decision making factors as well as outcome decisions.