The Importance of Judicial Empathy | The Nation

Courtroom sketch of Judge Shira Scheindlin. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Williams) A decision is imminent in New York’s historic stop-and-frisk case, tried for two months in a Manhattan federal courtroom.


Empathy does play a greater role where a judge may have some discretion, in sentencing for example, and often in family law. Yet, even then, one’s empathetic understanding may not trump other factors. I once had to decide whether a woman could move to a distant country with her three kids, leaving the father in New York. Throughout the non-jury trial I could appreciate the wife’s feelings that the man was a rotten husband and only a passable father. I saw through her why it would be good for her to get away, start life anew, have more opportunities. It was what I would have wanted to do in her place. But then the gold standard—the best interest of the children—kicked in and, despite my understanding of her, even my personal opinion, there was no evidence that it was in the best interest of her kids to be cut off from their father and their culture. Empathy placed me in the shoes of each of the family members.


by Emily Jane Goodman