Scott Harris

Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Type



Eberly College of Arts and Sciences


Political Science

Committee Chair

John Kilwein

Committee Co-Chair

Erin Cassese

Committee Member

Corey Colyer

Committee Member

Robert Duval

Committee Member

Shauna Fisher


Judicial scholars have long debated what factors influence judges' decision-making. Several competing theories have offered relatively parsimonious explanations for the motivations of appellate judges, but sources of influence for trial judges are relatively understudied. One area ripe for testing potential determinants of trial court behavior is the criminal sentencing behavior of federal district court judges. Recent empirical research has examined federal district court sentencing, but this research has often focused solely on the effects of legal policy change and judges' personal partisanship. These efforts are informative but ignore other potentially important contextual determinants of sentencing behavior, such as sentiment in the legal/judicial community, sentiment among the public, and pertinent objective conditions, such as crime rates and incarceration rates. Using a variety of methods in three different research designs, each emphasizing the change in judicial behavior over time, I test the extent to which district judges' sentencing decisions are impacted by broader social and political concerns. Results from the dissertation are decidedly mixed, but they do suggest that contextual influences are clearly an important component of sentencing behavior for many district judges. Future research efforts should pay heed to the potential impact of contextual factors on trial judge decision-making and seek to identify conditions under which social or political characteristics are most likely to affect judges.