NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Intrinsic Motivation in Public Service: Theory and Evidence from State Supreme Courts

Elliott Ash, W. Bentley MacLeod

NBER Working Paper No. 20664
Issued in November 2014, Revised in June 2015
NBER Program(s):   LE   LS

This paper provides a theoretical and empirical analysis of the intrinsic preferences of state appellate court judges. We construct a panel data set using published decisions from state supreme court cases merged with institutional and biographical information on all (1,636) state supreme court judges for the 50 states of the United States from 1947 to 1994. We estimate the effects of changes in judge employment conditions on a number of measures of judicial performance. The results are consistent with the hypothesis that judges are intrinsically motivated to provide high-quality decisions, and that at the margin they prefer quality over quantity. When judges face less time pressure, they write more well-researched opinions that are cited more often by later judges. When judges are up for election then performance falls, suggesting that election politics take time away from judging work – rather than providing an incentive for good performance. These effects are strongest when judges have more discretion to select their case portfolio, consistent with psychological theories that posit a negative effect of contingency on motivation (e.g. Deci, 1971).

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w20664

Published: Elliott Ash & W. Bentley MacLeod, 2015. "Intrinsic Motivation in Public Service: Theory and Evidence from State Supreme Courts," The Journal of Law and Economics, vol 58(4), pages 863-913.

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