If men and women approach moral problems in different ways, as "difference" feminists maintain, then do male and female judges decide court decisions differently? Coontz, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh, conducted a survey of state trial judges in Pennsylvania to find out.
The state has 366 trial court judges, of whom 28 are women. All 28, along with 167 male jurists, answered Coontz’s questions about how they would decide hypothetical cases involving self-defense homicide, personal injury, divorce, and assault. Coontz found significant male-female differences in almost half of the judges’ hypothetical decisions.
In the homicide case, a female defendant claimed to have been abused by her boyfriend and to have killed him in selfdefense. Twenty-seven percent of the female judges found her guilty, compared with 13 percent of the male judges. In the personal injury case, a plaintiff was left paralyzed from the waist down by an auto accident. The female judges awarded an average sum that was less than half that awarded by their male counterparts. But a woman being divorced by her husband fared slightly better before the female judges. All of them awarded her alimony, while three percent of the male judges did not.
Both male and female jurists were more likely to find a male defendant guilty of assault, in a scuffle growing out of a basketball game bet, than they were a female defendant. But that inclination was stronger in the women on the bench. The female judges also were more likely to impose a longer sentence in such an assault case and to award higher damages ($955, compared with $353). The male jurists were twice as likely (22 percent, compared with 11 percent) to award civil damages.
Coontz concludes that the women on the bench in Pennsylvania do indeed speak with "a different voice" from their male counterparts. This may be because of their different "lived experiences," she says. "We, of course, expect judges to set aside personal viewpoints when deciding cases, yet beneath the robe of justice is an individual whose perceptions of the world have been influenced by [his or her] experiences in it."