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Monday, October 30, 2006

"Will work for justice" and other helpful judicial campaign slogans

I recently sent off my voter ballot as a first-time Washington State voter—which is done by mail here, strangely. I even had to supply my own stamp! As I completed my ballot, however, I reflected on the many candidates from whom I was expected to select to fill various local judgeships, and of the campaigns that many of them ran.

I voted for judges when living in New York City too. But in New York, judicial elections were basically pre-determined by party nominating conventions. This practice recently was enjoined by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, so I assume that New York will turn to more of a true primary and open election system like here in Washington. And, it’s pretty strange, in my view, even unseemly, to see all the flyers, billboards, lawn signs, and cheesy TV commercials and web sites (see here, here and here, for some examples) for judicial candidates hawking for votes right along with all the “true” politicians. Beyond cheesy, the primary election in September was truly rancorous—and in some cases heavily funded—in some of the judicial elections, which included positions on the State Supreme Court.

Don’t get me wrong, many of the judicial candidates here have struck me as high caliber, and if elected surely will do a good job. But, despite the recent loosening of ethical restrictions on judicial campaign statements, judicial elections in the end do seem to devolve into empty cliché and “endorsement” contests that don’t inform voters very much about actual judicial views or merit (for an example how little substantive information voters really get about judicial candidates, look at this survey of the 2006 WA Supreme Court candidates by the Family Research Council), and invite interest group money into judicial campaign war chests. My question, which may not be a novel one, is whether these kinds of elections actually ensure that judicial candidates do a better job than if they had been appointed in some manner outside of the electoral process? Have any studies documented a beneficial effect on judicial performance from the electoral accountability of state and local judges?

Posted by Brooks Holland on October 30, 2006 at 12:57 PM in Law and Politics | Permalink


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Am I the only one who read that slogan and immediately thought of a homeless judge?

Posted by: David Schraub | Oct 30, 2006 6:21:42 PM

I've done some work on this area, and have concluded that no study can determine which systems result in better outcomes because there can be no consensus on what outcomes are in fact better. See Michael R. Dimino, The Futile Quest for a System of Judicial "Merit" Selection, 67 Alb. L. Rev. 803 (2004).
That said, Melinda Gann Hall has done some great research demonstrating that elected judges' decisions are different from appointed judges'. Older studies showed very little difference in the qualifications of appointed and elected judges, though.

Posted by: Mike Dimino | Oct 30, 2006 4:19:25 PM

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