Alexandra “Mac” Taylor does not shy away from a challenge. As a junior, Taylor took on America’s criminal justice system. Her honors thesis, “The Ethics of Judicial Decision-Making in Sentencing: A Case for Excluding Risk-Assessment Algorithms from Federal Judgeship,” explores the connection of law, justice, ethics, and algorithms. Taylor graduates this month with a host of accolades including a Stanford Alumni Association Award of Excellence and is the recipient of the Arnaud Leavelle Prize for Political Philosophy. Before she heads off to work as a fellow at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, we asked Taylor about her experience in the Ethics Center's Undergraduate Honors Program.
Why did you decide to participate in the Honors Program in Ethics in Society?
I chose to participate in the Honors Program because I was looking for a structured thesis program that was intimate, demanding, and instructive. I love that EIS was a small cohort that pushed each of us individually to achieve our best results. I further valued the timeframe of the program — by beginning in winter quarter of our junior year, it gave me a major head-start to refine what question and topic I wanted to focus upon.
In a few sentences, give us a sense of what your honors thesis research was about.
In my thesis, I investigate a nexus of law, justice, ethics, and artificial systems. I construct a normative argument which contends that risk-assessment algorithms, specifically the COMPAS system, should be excluded from the arena of federal judgeship until they are proven to serve judges in the sentencing procedure as sound judicial aids.
What was the single most rewarding aspect of writing your honors thesis?
The single most rewarding aspect of writing my honors thesis was interviewing Federal District Judge William Orrick III in chambers. My time with the judge permitted me to better understand the Justice system as it currently functions at the federal level, allowing me insight into both the unique discretion of one singular judge, and into how a rehabilitative approach to sentencing might change a judge’s outlook on the purpose of punishment. Working extensively with the judge’s interview transcript allowed me to examine how abstract theories of justice might be translated into the courtroom setting successfully. As I aim to pursue a future in law, I found this understanding to be of immense value.
Beyond your thesis, what are some of the most memorable moments of your Stanford undergraduate experience?
One of my most memorable undergraduate experiences was serving as a student panelist on the Judicial Affairs board for Stanford. JA panels oversee violations of the Honor Code and Fundamental Standard. Serving as a panelist allowed me to better understand the internal workings of the Stanford Administration, as well as to appreciate the respect and dignity with which Stanford approaches its academic regulations. Beyond this, I will miss my professors and friends the most. I have always valued the opportunity to engage in intellectually curious conversations with my peers and advisors, and I will miss dearly the moments we shared talking.
What opportunities would you like to pursue within the next five years?
This fall, I will begin work as a fellow at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, serving as a researcher on their content team. During this time, I will also apply to law school, with the hope of studying constitutional law in the future.