Legal Empiricist, Economist Joshua Fischman Returns to UVA Law Faculty

"It's really nice to be back and be among old friends," Fischman said. "This is where I learned to be a legal scholar."

June 16, 2016

A scholar with an economics background whose research focuses on judicial decision-making, Joshua Fischman will return to the University of Virginia School of Law this fall.

"Much of my research seeks to understand how legal institutions are working," Fischman said. "What can we learn about them from the data, and how can we make them better?"

Fischman re-joins the school from Northwestern University, where he was professor of law. He previously served as an associate professor at UVA Law from 2008 to 2011. 

"It's so nice to be back among old friends," he said. "This is where I learned how to be a legal scholar. UVA Law is a wonderful community."

Fischman earned a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a J.D. from Yale and an A.B. in mathematics from Princeton. In applying empirical methods to legal scholarship, he said, "I'm trying to bridge the disciplines." 

In addition to teaching Quantitative Methods and Antitrust during the 2016-17 year, Fischman will also teach a seminar on judging, which has been the focus of much of his recent scholarship. Some of his research, for example, has examined how the random assignment of cases affects outcomes. 

"We all understand that judges’ personal views have some effect on their decisions," he said. “But measuring the size of this effect is surprisingly challenging. Determining whether reforms are succeeding in mitigating this effect is even harder.”

Although Fischman considers himself primarily a methodologist, he wants to make sure research on the legal system stays pertinent to practitioners. 

"Much of my work has focused on developing methods that can make empirical research more relevant to the central questions of legal scholarship," he said.

But some of his research has had a more direct impact on current policy debates. His co-authored article, "Racial Disparities, Judicial Discretion, and the United States Sentencing Guidelines," published in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies in 2012, looks at sentencing reform measures first implemented in 2005. 

"What we find is a little bit counterintuitive," he said. "When sentencing judges have more discretion, the racial disparities are smaller. This is due to structural features of the sentencing guidelines that generate a large disparate impact against black defendants. Judges appear to be using their discretion to mitigate this."

Fischman said almost all of his scholarly articles have incubated at the Law School, for which he gives much credit to his UVA Law colleagues. He has returned to Charlottesville frequently to receive their input, including as a participant in Virginia's faculty workshops and John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics workshops.

Professor Greg Mitchell, an expert in law and psychology whose work has also explored the application of empirical research to law, said Fischman's well-thought-out research is important to understanding judicial decisions, and adds value to the faculty's overall scholarship.

"Josh is a great colleague, a wonderful resource on empirical research methods, and a strong and productive scholar," Mitchell said. "Josh’s scholarship breaks new ground in the field of judicial behavior, his work is always carefully done, and his ideas are always clearly presented. I’m delighted that Josh is returning to the Law School."

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