Do Fewer Judges Reach Different Decisions? Evidence from a Procedural Change in Asylum Appeal Decision Making

Abstract

One of many dimensions along which courts differ is the number of judges making decisions together: some hear cases by the full court, others have between nine and one judge(s) handle cases. Fueled by pressures to organize procedures more efficiently, one strategy adopted by policy-makers has been to reduce judicial panel size. Yet, we have only very limited empirical evidence as to if and how reducing panel size affects judicial decisions. This paper leverages a natural experiment at the Swiss Federal Administrative Court to gauge the impact of an effective panel size reduction on asylum appeal decisions. Drawing on a fuzzy regression discontinuity design approach, I show that giving chair judges the opportunity to invoke a shorter procedure involving one less judge in the decision of cases ‘clearly with or without merit’ leads to a decrease in the court’s grant rate. Though perhaps particularly consequential in the field of asylum law, this finding draws attention to the importance of decision-making procedures for the consistency of judicial decisions more broadly.