Juvenal's famous query -- "Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" ("But who will guard the guards themselves?") -- has for centuries been used to highlight the difficulties of ensuring the accountability of decision makers.
But for Rebecca Gill, the question is slightly recast: How will we judge the judges?
The assistant professor of political science is leading a project that seeks to shed light on the issue, assessing how judges are selected and retained and how gender or racial bias may influence their performance evaluations.
Thanks in part to a UNLV Faculty Opportunity Award, she has the support she needs to help promote the "fairness and validity" of the processes that determine who ends up presiding in the nation's courtrooms.
Gill says she has used the award to expand upon her earlier work on formal judicial performance evaluations and their effectiveness. That work, conducted in collaboration with UNLV law professor Sylvia Lazos, raised serious questions about the problem of implicit gender and race bias in judicial performance evaluation. Gill expanded the project and recently garnered a $171,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for it.
"Prior to the Faculty Opportunity Award, Sylvia and I had already conducted a small-scale pilot study of judicial performance evaluations in Clark County," Gill says. "However, we ran into quite a bit of pushback because of the unique situation of performance evaluations here in Nevada. That study found that rankings for female judges are significantly lower than similarly situated male judges. I really needed a broader pilot study demonstrating the generalizability of our preliminary findings to performance evaluations in other states."
Gill says the FOA allowed her to conduct a broader pilot study and to hire a research assistant to help with the labor-intensive process of collecting the expanded pilot data to support a grant proposal. In the summer of 2013, she submitted her proposal to the NSF's Law and Social Science Program, which seeks to advance scientific theory and understanding of the connections between law or legal processes and human behavior.
"Without help from UNLV," she says, "I would not have been able to conduct the broader pilot study, which was essential. Information collected in the pilot was used to establish the feasibility of this project, as well as its theoretical and practical importance to the NSF's Law and Social Science Program's mission." The expanded pilot study was also the source of the data used in two scholarly publications, one of which she co-authored with her FOA research assistant, Kenneth Retzl.
NSF funding in place, Gill says that she is now working with two full-time research assistants to collect data for the American Judicial Performance Evaluation Database, which will contain information for all the states that use judicial performance evaluations to judge the judges' qualifications and effectiveness. Such a catalog of evaluations, Gill's research indicates, will help shed light on persistent disparities -- such as those noted in her pilot study -- in the way judges and prospective judges are scored.
As part of her NSF grant, she will also write a best practices handbook for designing and implementing selection and evaluation programs.
Beyond her current study, she is interested in expanding her research to study the selection, evaluation, and retention of other public officials, including local and state politicians as well as public prosecutors, police chiefs, and the like.
She acknowledges that for those invested in the evaluation status quo, her plans might not be an easy sell. But there are signs of progress.
"Those who are strongly supportive of the current system of judicial performance evaluation have revisited some previously unexamined assumptions of the fairness and validity of the instruments currently in use," Gill says. Fiat justitia.