Experience Matters. Except When it Doesn’t.

It’s election season in Westmoreland County. This morning I saw a billboard to re-elect Judge So-And-So because “Experience Matters.”

I’m not so sure.

Since the age of 20, for example, I’ve accumulated two decades of experience in walking. Am I a better walker than I was 20 years ago? Not that I can tell.

I’m also certain that there are some things I’ve gotten worse at over the last 20 years. Two decades of indulging bad habits have taken their toll.

So sometimes experience doesn’t make us better at something. Sometimes it even makes us worse. For experience to matter, two important conditions must be met.

First, we have to get reliable feedback. We do something and then we find out what worked and what didn’t. The feedback can be built into the activity itself or it can come from another person, but it must be reliable. In other words, we must know what we did well and what we did poorly.

Secondly, we must consider the feedback and change what we do in response to it. When something works, we must do more of it. When it doesn’t, we must do less of it, or change what we’re doing.

Does a judge’s experience meet these two conditions? When a judge makes a poor decision, does she get reliable feedback that she has done so? If her sentencing is overly-harsh or overly-lenient, for example, is there any mechanism or person that makes this clear to her? If a decision is overturned on appeal, I suppose that could provide some feedback, assuming that she agrees that the superior judge has, in fact, made a better decision than she did.

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’d be grateful to be instructed by someone who does.

For my part, if I were involved in a court case in any capacity, I don’t think I would look at the judge’s age or time on the bench as a reliable indicator of anything in particular.