New Research Shows Judges With Corporate Backgrounds More Likely to Rule Against Workers


Study is the first to examine the rulings of corporate lawyers who become judges.

WASHINGTON, DC— A new report from Demand Justice, authored by Emory University School of Law professor Joanna Shepherd, finds that federal judges who previously worked as corporate lawyers are more likely to rule against workers in employment cases, even when compared only to judges appointed by the same president.

The study comes amidst an effort by top Democrats to change the type of lawyers who are appointed to the federal bench, which is currently dominated by former prosecutors and corporate lawyers, and it shows that that effort could make the federal judiciary more pro-worker and more diverse. President Biden has asked senators to recommend potential judges with experience as “public defenders, civil rights and legal aid attorneys, and those who represented Americans in every walk to life,” a sharp contrast with the professional backgrounds presidents of both parties have tended to draw from. In 2019, Demand Justice called for a moratorium on the appointment of partners at big law firms to the federal bench.

The report also finds that former prosecutors are similarly more likely than other judges to rule against workers, and it shows that judges picked with prosecutorial and corporate experience are more likely to be white than other judges appointed by President Obama.

Professor Shepherd conducted the research and authored the report. The report is the first empirical study of how corporate law backgrounds affect a judges’ rulings, and it draws on the most comprehensive database yet published of the professional backgrounds of Obama and Trump judges. 

Key findings of the report include:

  • Compared to other judges, judges with corporate backgrounds and former prosecutors were significantly more likely to rule against workers in employment lawsuits. The result held true when comparing only Obama-appointed judges. Obama judges with corporate backgrounds were 36% less likely to decide in favor of workers in employment cases, and former prosecutors were 50% less likely to decide in their favor. 
  • Among President Obama’s picks, prosecutors and corporate lawyers were significantly more likely to be white than were other types of lawyers. Only 33% of President Obama’s nominees with a corporate background were lawyers of color and only 41% of former prosecutors were, while 67% of former public defenders were.

On Thursday, Demand Justice will host a virtual discussion of the research with a keynote presentation by Professor Shepherd and remarks by Assistant Federal Defender at the Federal Defenders of New York LaKeytria Felder, Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for Justice Linda Lipsen, General Counsel of the National Education Association Alice O’Brien, and Senior Director of Policy & Strategy of the New York Working Families Party Kumar Rao. 

The full report and RSVP details for the panel can be found here.

Members of the press can RSVP to the panel by emailing [email protected].

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