Lawyer and Non-Lawyer Judges are Disciplined at the Same Rate
Conventional Wisdom is Wrong
Some states, like New York and Texas, allow non-lawyers to be judges. It is conventional wisdom that because non-lawyer judges have no formal legal training they would be disciplined at a higher rate than lawyer judges. But is this conventional wisdom correct? The answer is no. According to New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct Annual Reports from 2005 - 2014, non-lawyer judges were disciplined at a slightly lower rate than lawyer judges.
New York allows non-lawyers to be judges only at the lowest level of their unified court system - the Town and Village courts. The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct publishes Annual Reports that break down the disciplinary statistics of lawyer and non-lawyer judges, so we added up all the disciplines for 2005 - 2014 for the Town and Village judges only, and divided by the numbers of lawyer and non-lawyer judges to get the discipline rates by year. Our data came from the Town and Village Justices tables of the Annual Reports (below). Some judges are cautioned after an investigation. At the conclusion of an investigation, the complaint is either dismissed or a formal written complaint is authorized, which may result in a judge being cautioned, publicly disciplined, or resigning.
Thus, we counted the following categories as a form of discipline: "Judges Cautioned After Investigation," "Judges Cautioned After Formal Complaint," "Judges Publicly Disciplined," and "Judges Vacating Office by Public Stipulation." We did not include "Formal Complaints Dismissed or Closed" because the data tables do not indicate whether the complaint was dismissed or closed for another reason - e.g. the judge did not run for reelection. However, even had we included the category, the results would have changed by less than 0.2 percent.
Lawyer judges were disciplined at an average rate of 1.6 percent.
Non-lawyer judges were disciplined at an average rate of 1.3 percent.
However, we explain below why we believe the discipline rates are approximately the same and within the margin of error.
Here is a table we prepared from the 2006 - 2015 Annual Reports (reporting years 2005 - 2014):
The Annual Reports indicate the "approximate" number of total judges and lawyer judges. These numbers appear to become more accurate beginning in 2013. Given the jump from 400 to 750 lawyer judges and the drop from 1850 to 1365 non-lawyer judges between 2012 and 2013, we suspect that the number of lawyer judges was slightly higher than 400 in recent prior years and the number of non-lawyer judges was slightly lower than 1850 in recent prior years. However, even if the overall average number of lawyer judges was 600 instead of the reported 471, and the average number of non-lawyer judges was 1,600 instead of the reported 1757, the discipline rate would be 1.2 percent for lawyer judges and 1.5 percent for non-lawyer judges. Thus, we reasonably conclude that the discipline rates of lawyer and non-lawyer judges are approximately the same and within the margin of error.
Here are the relevant pages of the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct Annual Reports:
Our result is corroborated by an earlier 2002 study by the National Center for State Courts on New York's lawyer and non-lawyer discipline statistics, which concluded, “… the statistics do not necessarily support a conclusion that non-lawyer or part-time judges are more likely to disregard the law.”
Explanation for Why Conventional Wisdom Fails
A non-lawyer judge would ostensibly commit legal error more often in their rulings because they have no formal legal training. But legal error is not considered judicial misconduct and is not disciplined unless severe. Actions considered to be judicial misconduct are relatively common sense - demeanor, bias, failure to recuse oneself, ex parte communication, etc. They are not behaviors that require extensive legal training to avoid.