Inferring Individual Preferences from Group Decisions: Judicial Preference Variation and Aggregation in Asylum Appeals

(with Dominik Hangartner & Benjamin E Lauderdale)


Recent studies of asylum adjudication in the U.S. and Canada have found size- able disparities between individual adjudicators. We contribute to this literature by focusing on the Swiss Federal Administrative Court, a case that is methodologically challenging since we only observe the decision of the panel, not judges’ individual opinions, and politically relevant, since judges have known party affiliations. Several features of the Swiss asylum appeal process combine to offer an unusual opportunity to examine judges’ revealed preferences: asylum cases are as- signed at random (conditional on language) to panels of judges and have a common, unidimensional structure, as all decisions typically involve the appeal of an initial asylum decision. As a result, we can test which of several decision-theoretic models of group decision making appear to best fit the panel decisions, as well as inferring the judges’ individual preferences. The analysis of the universe of asylum decisions made between 2007 and 2015 shows that inconsistencies in decision making due to panel composition are substantial from the court’s establishment to the end of the study period and that judges’ estimated preferences are strongly correlated with their party membership in expected ways. In addition, the methodology we pro- pose to infer individual preferences from repeated group decisions has the potential for fruitful application in a variety of other contexts.