On Judicial Temperament

judge with wig          Recently our Mexican partner, Celina del Castillo Acevedo, asked me what Big Five traits were associated with effective judges. Celina is a consultant with People Value in Mexico City, and a long time user of the Big Five in Central America. One of her specialties is identifying ideal Big Five trait profiles for specific jobs. So, her question to me, in other words, was: if you could clone effective judges, what traits would they have in common, if any? Or, if you could mint judges, what would the mold be like? Drawing from my own research, as well as that of several lawyers in our global consulting network, here’s what we came up with.

          Jeffrey Rosen is a professor of law at The George Washington University and the legal affairs editor of The New Republic. In his recent book, The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries that Defined America (2006), Rosen described the difference between the most effective chief justices of the U.S. supreme court, in contrast to those chief justices who have gone down in history as unsatisfactory:

     “The most successful chief justices, in other words, have shared a particular style of judicial temperament. They have been modest, likable, efficient, deft at finding common ground, and at least as smart as their colleagues without being overtly brilliant or intensely academic. Some of the most effective chiefs have been former politicians or politically minded executive officials who had a knack for bringing together colleagues of different minds. By contrast, the less successful chiefs have been insecure, heavy-handed, and more concerned with being recognized as the symbolic head of the Court than providing leadership behind the scenes.” (pp. 12-13) 

          By examining the language that Rosen uses to contrast successful with unsuccessful chief justices, we can see the Big Five pattern emerging. The successful justices were modest (mid or slightly higher on A: Accommodation/Agreeableness), likable (lower N: Need for Stability/Neuroticism, higher E: Extraversion, mid A), efficient, (higher Conscientiousness/Consolidation), deft at finding common ground (mid A), and a knack for bringing together people of different minds (higher O: Originality/Openness). Put all this together, and you get N-E+O+A=C+, which is consistent with our ideal leadership profile (see discussion of this in our chapter on leadership in The Owner’s Manual for Personality at Work. Unsuccessful chief justices, on the other hand, were insecure (higher N), heavy handed (very low A, and low tact/subtrait E6), and attention-seeking (very low A, especially low humility/subtrait A3).

          In other words, the ideal chief justice, according to Rosen, is the same as the ideal leader in general. In another resource recommended by Ted Grabowski, we looked at Yale Law School Sterling Professor of Law Anthony T. Kronman’s book The Lost Lawyer: Failing Ideals of the Legal Profession (Harvard University Press, 1993). Professor Kronman describes what he sees as the ideal judicial temperament: 

  • “More calm or cautious than most people” [that equates to low N]
  • “Better able to sympathize with a wide range of conflicting points of view” [this equates to mid to somewhat higher A]
  • “Preeminent among these was the trait of prudence or practical wisdom” [ equates to moderate O, lower N, and higher C

          Ted expanded on Kronman’s comments by pointing out that

     “Higher E and A would help a judge to build consensus when they sit on a panel and not work alone. Typically I suspect too high O would get in the way of patiently listening to the facts and simply applying the law–which is not a particularly creative or exciting activity for a high O.  I would imagine the judges who get accused of trying to “make law” are higher O. Too high A would get in the way of applying the law, especially when the application does a significant hardship to the party and at some level feels quite unfair and inequitable. Blind justice and all that.” (personal correspondence)

          I concur with Ted’s comments with a couple of modifications. First, while “listening to facts and applying the law” is not particularly creative and would be unlikely to appeal to higher O’s, such a mental activity can certainly get complex and contorted, which would in fact appeal to higher O’s. Second, I suspect that judges who try to “make law” are also likely to be lower in A, as this trait is associated with a kind of “my way or the highway” perspective.

          In yet another stab at pegging the ideal judicial temperament, Ted provided this quote from the American Bar Association, which defines it as characterized by “compassion [A+], decisiveness [N-C+], open-mindedness [O+], sensitivity [A+], courtesy [blend of E+ and A+], patience [N-], freedom from bias [O=A=] and commitment to equal justice [A=].” (ABA. Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary: What It Is and How It Works. American Bar Association. 1991, p. 4)

          In summary, I would propose two profiles: one for chief justice/judge, the other for a regular justice/judge. The former profile applies to a judge who must be in charge of a panel, tribunal, or other assembly of judges who must come to a decision as a group, while the latter profile applies to a judge who must come up with decisions alone:

  • Chief Justice/Judge: N-E+O+A=C+ (the standard leadership profile, with the exception of mid A)
  • Other Justices/Judges: N-E=O=A=C+ (lower demands on extraversion and openness/originality)

          It should be noted that a leader can compensate for a missing trait by leaning on associates who can supply it. As an example, Chief Justice Earl Warren was a polarizing, low A jurist, but he had Associate Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., a warm “genuinely lovable” (as Ted and others describe him) justice and great consensus builder, to build and mend bridges on his path to use the court to effect social change.

          To explore this question further, Ted recommends that one peruse a book by the late Chapman Distinguished Professor of Law (at the University of Tulsa) Bernard Schwartz, A Book of Legal Lists: The Best and Worst in American Law (Oxford University Press, 1997). Ted especially recommends the first two chapters, the first about the ten greatest supreme court justices, the second about the ten worst.

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