Identifying Judicial Empathy: Does Having Daughters Cause Judges to Rule for Women’s Issues?

Judges with daughters vote more often in a feminist direction on gender related cases.


In 2009, a debate about whether judges should factor empathic feelings into their decisions emerged in the United States. Proponents argue that judicial decision-making should be accompanied by empathy, while opponents highlight that empathy undermines impartiality. This paper is the first to provide empirical support to the idea that empathy and personal relationships affect judicial decision-making. The authors examine the effect of having a daughter on the votes of judges in the United States Courts of Appeals.


U.S. Courts of Appeals judges with daughters tend to vote for more gender equal outcomes.

  • Male judges with at least one daughter show a 9% increase in the proportion of votes cast in a progressive direction on gender-related cases, conditional on the total number of children. This study cannot draw a definitive conclusion regarding female judges because too few exist, and too many have zero children (29% of female judges compared to only 8% of male judges have no children).
  • The results are primarily driven by male Republican judges. The effect of having daughters for Republican judges is an average 7% increase in the proportion of cases decided in a feminist direction while the results are statistically insignificant for Democratic judges.
  • The effect of having daughters exists only for rulings regarding gender-related cases such as those pertaining to discrimination, sex discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, etc. There is no relationship between having a daughter and voting in a more liberal direction in non-gender-related cases.

In short, having daughters makes male judges more likely to vote in favor of gender equality.


The authors constructed two datasets: one on federal judges’ families and one on gender-related cases. The data came from the U.S. Courts of Appeals, chosen for the larger sample size (relative to the U.S. Supreme Court), the type of cases and random assignment of cases to judges. The family dataset contains information on the number of children for 224 appeals judges and how many of them are girls, extracted from a variety of public sources. The case-level dataset contains 990 cases with a gender component brought to the U.S. Courts of Appeals.

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