Articles & Working Papers


Using a new dataset capturing the ideological positioning of nearly half a million U.S. judges and lawyers, we present evidence showing how ideology affects the selection of judges across federal and state judiciaries. We document that the higher the court, the more it deviates ideologically from the ideology of attorneys, suggesting ideology plays a strong role in judicial selection. We also show ideology plays stronger roles in jurisdictions where judges are selected via political appointments or partisan elections. Our findings suggest that ideology is an important component of judicial selection primarily where (1) using ideology leads to expected benefits to politicians, (2) when the jurisdiction's selection process allows ideology to be used, and (3) where it concerns the most important courts. The study is the first to provide a direct ideological comparison across judicial tiers and between judges and lawyers and to explain how and why American courts become politicized.

legal-ideology.pdf legal-ideology-appendix.pdf
Sen, Maya, and William Spaniel. 2017. “How Uncertainty About Judicial Nominees Can Distort the Confirmation Process.” Journal of Theoretical Politics 29 (1): 22-47. Publisher's Version Abstract

Judicial nominees to federal courts rarely reveal their genuine views on controversial issues. As a result, political actors---and especially the Senate---often have only partial information about how a nominee would vote on issues likely to come before the courts. We formulate a model that departs from the previous literature by incorporating this type of uncertainty into the nominations process. Our model shows that the absence of such information can yield suboptimal outcomes. In particular, when the President and Senate are ideologically divergent, low information about nominees' views results in the Senate occasionally rejecting acceptable nominees. Thus, even though low information allows the President to ``sneak in" more extreme candidates, it leads to both the President and the Senate being worse off than they would be with more transparency. Under such conditions, more information weakly increases both sides' welfare. Our results therefore raise questions about why nominees are permitted to keep important views private.


Does encouragement help address gender imbalances in technical fields? We present the results of one of the first and largest randomized controlled trials on the topic. Using an applied statistics conference in the social sciences as our context, we randomly assigned half of a pool of 3,945 graduate students to receive two personalized emails encouraging them to apply (n = 1,976) and the other half to receive nothing (n = 1,969). We find a robust, positive effect associated with this simple intervention and suggestive evidence that women responded more strongly than men. However, we find that women’s conference acceptance rates are higher within the control group than in the treated group. This is not the case for men. The reason appears to be that female applicants in the treated group solicited supporting letters at lower rates. Our findings therefore suggest that “low dose” interventions may promote diversity in STEM fields but may also have the potential to expose underlying disparities when used alone or in a non-targeted way.

Bonica, Adam, Adam Chilton, and Maya Sen. 2016. “The Political Ideologies of American Lawyers.” Journal of Legal Analysis 8 (2): 277-335. Publisher's Version Abstract

The ideology of American lawyers has been a persistent source of discussion and debate. Two obstacles, however, have prevented this topic from being systematically studied: the sheer number of attorneys in the USA and the need for a methodology that makes comparing the ideology of specific individuals possible. In this article, we present a comprehensive mapping of lawyers’ ideologies that has overcome these hurdles. We use a new dataset that links the largest database of political ideology with the largest database of lawyers’ identities to complete the most extensive analysis of the political ideology of American lawyers ever conducted.

Sen, Maya, and Omar Wasow. 2016. “Race as a 'Bundle of Sticks': Designs that Estimate Effects of Seemingly Immutable Characteristics.” Annual Review of Political Science 19: 499-522. Publisher's Version Abstract

Although understanding the role of race, ethnicity, and identity is central to political science, methodological debates persist about whether it is possible to estimate the effect of something ``immutable.'' At the heart of the debate is an older theoretical question: is race best understood under an essentialist or constructivist framework? In contrast to the ``immutable characteristics'' or essentialist approach, we argue that race should be operationalized as a ``bundle of sticks'' that can be disaggregated into elements. With elements of race, causal claims may be possible using two designs: (1) studies that measure the effect of exposure to a racial cue and (2) studies that exploit within-group variation to measure the effect of some manipulable element. These designs can reconcile scholarship on race and causation and offer a clear framework for future research.


Select Media Coverage: Vox

Acharya, Avidit, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen. 2016. “Explaining Causal Findings Without Bias: Detecting and Assessing Direct Effects.” American Political Science Review 110 (3): 512-529. Publisher's Version Abstract

Researchers seeking to establish causal relationships frequently control for variables on the purported causal pathway, checking whether the original treatment effect then disappears. Unfortunately, this common approach may lead to biased estimates. In this paper, we show that the bias can be avoided by focusing on a quantity of interest called the controlled direct effect. Under certain conditions, the controlled direct effect enables researchers to rule out competing explanations---an important objective for political scientists.  To estimate the controlled direct effect without bias, we describe an easy-to-implement estimation strategy from the biostatistics literature. We extend this approach by deriving a consistent variance estimator and demonstrating how to conduct a sensitivity analysis. Two examples---one on ethnic fractionalization's effect on civil war and one on the impact of historical plough use on contemporary female political participation---illustrate the framework and methodology.

Acharya, Avidit, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen. 2016. “The Political Legacy of American Slavery.” Journal of Politics 78 (3): 621-641. Publisher's Version Abstract

We show that contemporary differences in political attitudes across counties in the American South in part trace their origins to slavery’s prevalence more than 150 years ago. Whites who currently live in Southern counties that had high shares of slaves in 1860 are more likely to identify as a Republican, oppose affirmative action, and express racial resentment and colder feelings toward blacks. We show that these results cannot be explained by existing theories, including the theory of contemporary racial threat. To explain the results, we offer evidence for a new theory involving the historical persistence of political attitudes. Following the Civil War, Southern whites faced political and economic incentives to reinforce existing racist norms and institutions to maintain control over the newly freed African American population. This amplified local differences in racially conservative political attitudes, which in turn have been passed down locally across generations.

Sen, Maya. 2015. “How Ratifying Treaty Rights Could Affect Norms, Laws, and Constitutional Language (Comment).” Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics 171 (1): 112-117. Publisher's Version Abstract

Why do some countries incorporate language from international treaties into their constitutions? Why do others not do so? This is among the most important questions in international law as well as the focus of Versteeg’s (2015) thought-provoking article “Law versus Norms: The Impact of Human-Rights Treaties on National Bills of Rights.” Versteeg’s data, among the most original and important in this field, lead us to think that treaties affect both norms and laws, which in turn affect constitutional language development. Building from this work, I advocate that scholars ought to think carefully about the complicated counterfactuals and causal processes behind the process of constitutional language change and to engage further the observational implications of the explanation in terms of norms versus those in terms of institutions. Thinking more carefully about the causal pathways, as well as the appropriate counterfactuals, could open up important avenues for exploring possible mechanisms for domestic constitutions to be affected by international treaties.

Hochschild, Jennifer, and Maya Sen. 2015. “Genetic Determinism, Technology Optimism, and Race: Views of the American Public.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 661 (1): 160-180. Publisher's Version Abstract

We begin with a typology of Americans’ understanding of the links between genetic inheritance and racial or ethnic groups. The typology has two dimensions: one running from genetic determinism to social construction, and the other from technology optimism to technology pessimism. Construing each dimension as a dichotomy enables four distinct political perspectives on the possibilities for reducing racial inequality in the United States through genomics. We then use a new public opinion survey to analyze Americans’ use of the typology. Survey respondents who perceive that some phenotypes are more prevalent in one group than another due to genetic factors are disproportionately technology optimists. Republicans and Democrats are equally likely to hold that set of views, as are self-identified blacks, whites, and Latinos. The article discusses the findings and speculates about alternative interpretations of the fact that partisanship and group identity do not differentiate Americans in their views of the links between genetic inheritance and racial inequality.

Monroe, Burt L, Jennifer Pan, Margaret E Roberts, Maya Sen, and Betsy Sinclair. 2015. “No! Formal Theory, Causal Inference, and Big Data are Not Contradictory Trends in Political Science.” PS: Political Science and Politics 48 (1): 71-74. Publisher's Version Abstract

New types of and approaches to data are enabling new forms of data-intensive political science, some of which in isolation appear to challenge established models of inquiry in political science and science more generally. We argue, however, that none of this means that big data is fundamentally incompatible with formal theory, causal inference, or social science research methods in general. To the contrary, big data already is interacting with formal theoretic and causal inference approaches in ways that are not only consistent with these approaches but that also enhance them by enabling us to answer new questions.

Hochschild, Jennifer, and Maya Sen. 2015. “Technology Optimism or Pessimism About Genomic Science: Variation Among Experts and Scholarly Disciplines.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 658 (1): 236-252. Publisher's Version Abstract

Experts, like lay people, express varying levels of technology optimism or pessimism about scientific endeavors. However, explanations for this variation are underdeveloped. We explore technology optimism and pessimism among experts, who have high levels of scientific literacy but different values and norms. We focus on genomic science; its novelty, life-and-death implications, complex technology, and broad but as-yet-unknown societal implications make it an excellent subject for the study of views about new knowledge. After demonstrating the range of views through elite interviews, we analyze results of two content analyses of about 750 articles by prominent social scientists, law professors, and biologists. Some disciplines pay more attention to genomics than others, and they differ in their valences; experts in more liberal disciplines tend to be less optimistic about genomics than scholars in relatively more conservative disciplines. We speculate on why genomics is an exception to the general finding that liberals are more supportive of science than conservatives.

Sen, Maya. 2015. “Is Justice Really Blind? Race and Appellate Review in U.S. Courts.” Journal of Legal Studies 44 (S1): 187-229. Publisher's Version Abstract

In this paper, I use two new data sets to demonstrate that black federal judges are consistently overturned on appeal more often than similar white judges. The effect is robust and persists after taking into account previous professional and judicial experience, educational backgrounds, qualification ratings assigned by the American Bar Association, and differences in partisanship. This study is the first to explore how higher-court judges evaluate opinions written by judges of color, and it has clear implications: despite attempts to make judiciary more reflective of the general population, racial disparities within the legal system continue to persist.


Winner, 2012 Best Graduate Student Paper Prize -- American Political Science Association Law & Courts Section

Glynn, Adam, and Maya Sen. 2015. “Identifying Judicial Empathy: Does Having Daughters Cause Judges to Rule for Women's Issues?” American Journal of Political Science 59 (1): 37-54. Publisher's Version Abstract

In this paper, we ask whether personal relationships can affect the way that judges decide cases. To do so, we leverage the natural experiment of a child's gender to identify the effect of having daughters on the votes of judges. Using new data on the family lives of U.S. Courts of Appeals judges, we find that, conditional on the number of children a judge has, judges with daughters consistently vote in a more feminist fashion on gender issues than judges who have only sons. This result survives a number of robustness tests and appears to be driven primarily by Republican judges. More broadly, this result demonstrates that personal experiences influence how judges make decisions, and it is the first paper to show that empathy may indeed be a component in how judges decide cases.


DNA ancestry testing may seem frivolous, but it points to two crucial questions: First, what is the relationship, if any, between biology and race? Second, how much and why do people prefer clear, singular racial identities over blurred, mixed racial self-understandings, or the reverse? We posit that individuals of different racial or ethnic backgrounds will have different levels of support for this new technology. In particular, despite the history of harm caused by the biologization of race, we theorize that African Americans will be receptive to the use of DNA ancestry testing because conventional genealogical searches for ancestral roots are mostly unavailable to them. This “broken chain” theory leads to two hypotheses, of disproportionately high Black interest in DNA ancestry testing—thus an implicit acceptance of a link between biology and race—and high acceptance among Blacks of multiple heritages despite a preference for evidence of roots in Africa.

To test these hypotheses, we analyze two databases of U.S. newspaper articles, one with almost 6,000 items and a second with 700. We also analyze two new public opinion surveys of nationally representative samples of adult Americans. Most of the evidence comes from the second survey, which uses vignettes to obtain views about varied results of DNA ancestry testing. We find that the media increasingly report on the links between genetic inheritance and race, and emphasize singular racial ancestry more than multiple heritages. The surveys show, consistent with our theory, that Blacks (and Hispanics, to some degree) are especially receptive to DNA ancestry testing, and are pleased with not only a finding of group singularity but also a finding of multiple points of origin. Qualitative readings of media reports illuminate some of the reasons behind these survey findings. We conclude with a brief discussion of the broader importance of DNA ancestry testing. 


Recent studies have questioned whether American Bar Association (ABA) ratings of judicial nominees are skewed against minority candidates.  However, a strong critique of these findings is that they are being driven by appointments made at a time of greater inequality in terms of education and preparedness.  In this paper, I address these questions.  First, I provide evidence that the educational and professional backgrounds of minority judicial nominees have indeed shifted over time, and that minority judges increasingly attend prestigious law schools and have clerkship experience.  Second, however, I show that the gap in ABA ratings between minority and white candidates continues into recent years, despite this trend.  My results therefore contribute to a growing literature calling into question the ongoing use of subjective ratings of judicial candidates.


This paper uses two new datasets to investigate the reliance by political actors on the external vetting of judicial candidates, in particular vetting conducted by the nation's largest legal organization, the American Bar Association (ABA). First, I demonstrate that poorly rated lower-court nominees are significantly more likely to have their nominations fail before the Senate. However, I also show that minority and female nominees are more likely than whites and males to receive these lower ratings, even after controlling for education, experience, and partisanship via matching. Furthermore, by presenting results showing that ABA ratings are unrelated to judges' ultimate reversal rates, I show that these scores are a poor predictor of how nominees perform once confirmed. The findings in this paper complicate the ABA's influential role in judicial nominations, both in terms of its utility in predicting judicial "performance" and also in terms of possible implicit biases against minority candidates, and suggest that political actors rely on these ratings perhaps for reasons unrelated to the courts.


Select Media Coverage: National Public RadioMSNBC, New York Times Op-Ed (with response letter and article)



Sen, Maya. 2013. “Courting Deliberation: An Essay on Deliberative Democracy in the American Judicial System.” Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy 26. Abstract

Many legal theorists and political philosophers – among them John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Amy Gutmann, Dennis Thompson, and Joshua Cohen – believe that decision making through deliberation is a normative ideal that yields both better laws as well as a positive transformation in its participants. They further have assumed the judiciary is perhaps best equipped to realize this kind of “deliberative democracy,” and that the courts can effectively provide an example for other, less deliberative branches of government to follow. This essay argues, however, that judicial deliberation is both more complicated than is assumed by these theorists and also embodies a kind of deliberation different in nature than the one we would expect in a deliberative model. Indeed, contributions from social science suggest that judges are strategic (and oftentimes political) actors, and that their “deliberations” are more like akin to bargaining than reasoned exchanges. In addition, the products of judicial decision making – the courts’ opinions – often fail to reflect true deliberative reasoning. Thus, the judiciary might in many ways be less deliberative than its sister branches. This is not to say that judicial processes cannot be modified to become more deliberative – and therefore more normatively desirable -- but it does suggest that the assumption that the courts provide a deliberative model for other decision makers to follow might be based on a romanticized view of judicial processes, rather than on the way judges actually behave. This conclusion has, moreover, strong implications for the feasibility of deliberation as a decision making mechanism.

King, Gary, and Maya Sen. 2013. “The Troubled Future of Colleges and Universities.” PS: Political Science and Politics 46 (1): 81-89. Abstract

The American system of higher education is under attack by political, economic, and educational forces that threaten to undermine its business model, governmental support, and operating mission. The potential changes are considerably more dramatic and disruptive than what we've already experienced. Traditional colleges and universities urgently need a coherent, thought-out response. Their central role in ensuring the creation, preservation, and distribution of knowledge may be at risk and, as a consequence, so too may be the spectacular progress across fields we have come to expect as a result.

Introduction and article for a symposium for PS: Political Science and Politics. Other symposium participants are Henry E. Brady (UC-Berkeley), Michael Laver (NYU), Nannerl O. Keohane (Princeton), Virginia Sapiro (BU), and John Mark Hansen (Chicago).

king_sen_symposiumintro.pdf king_sen_symposiumarticle.pdf
King, Gary, and Maya Sen. 2013. “How Social Science Research Can Improve Teaching.” PS: Political Science and Politics 46 (3): 621-629. Publisher's Version Abstract

We marshal discoveries about human behavior and learning from social science research and show how they can be used to improve teaching and learning. The discoveries are easily stated as three social science generalizations: (1) social connections motivate, (2) teaching teaches the teacher, and (3) instant feedback improves learning. We show how to apply these generalizations via innovations in modern information technology inside, outside, and across university classrooms. We also give concrete examples of these ideas from innovations we have experimented with in our own teaching.

Hochschild, Jennifer, Alex Crabill, and Maya Sen. 2012. “Technology Optimism or Pessimism: How Trust in Science Shapes Policy Attitudes About Genomic Science.” Brookings Issues in Technology Innovation , no. 21. Publisher's Version Abstract

Just as physics gained public visibility and ideological contention as it matured over the twentieth century, so genomic science will gain public visibility and competing normative valences as it becomes increasingly important during the twenty-first century. We begin by describing Americans’ level of technology optimism or pessimism across four arenas in genomic science and one arena (climate change) outside genomic science. We then ask “so what?” – do people who perceive more harm than good in genomic science hold different policy preferences from those who perceive more good than harm? Do optimists and pessimists differ in their perceptions of elite actors, or their willingness to be directly involved with the new science? Finally, we consider variations within the public. Is knowledge about genetics associated with more optimism about genomic science? Are people with direct interests in one arena of genomics more optimistic (or pessimistic) about its future than they are about other arenas? Do religiosity or characteristics such as race or gender play a role in levels of optimism about genomics in general or particular genomics arenas?

We conclude, first, that public attitudes toward genomic science are coherent and intelligible, perhaps surprisingly so given how new and complex the substantive issues are, and, second, that citizens differ from most social scientists, legal scholars, and policy advocates in their overall embrace of genomics’ possibilities for benefitting society.