The Partisan Price of Judicial Elections

A major study of judicial elections released today reports that campaign spending in judicial elections doubled over the past decade and that “judicial elections are increasingly focusing not on competence and fairness but on promising results in the courtroom after election day.” The report was authored by the Justice at Stake Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, with a foreword by Sandra Day O’Connor. It has already received extensive press coverage as the fall cycle begins to heat up.

My forthcoming article in N.Y.U. Law Review with my co-author Joanna Shepherd offers some important insights regarding the influence of campaign money on judicial decisions. Using a dataset of virtually every state supreme court decision in all fifty states over a four-year period, we find that elected judges are more likely to decide in favor of business interests as the amount of campaign contributions that they have received from those interests increases. In other words, every dollar of direct contributions from business groups is associated with a statistically significant increase in the probability that the judges will vote for business litigants. Although Joanna and I study the period preceding this decade, from 1996 through 1998, our finding helps substantiate the concerns articulated by the Brennan Center report released today.

What is more, we find that this association between dollars and decisions disappears when we look at only retiring judges in their final term. Those judges, unburdened by campaign considerations for the future, seem not to decide in favor of their business contributors’ interests to the same degree. Although we offer only very tentative conclusions in this direction, this latter finding suggests that the association between dollars and decisions is the result of more than a mere selection effect in the election of judges, but instead hints at a potential biasing of incumbent judges by the expected need for campaign money in the future.

However, Joanna and I also find that holding nonpartisan elections, instead of partisan ones, seems to make a significant difference when it comes to the relationship between campaign contributions and later decisions. At least over our period of study, we find a statistically significant relationship between campaign contributions and judicial decisions in favor of contributors’ interests only for judges elected in partisan elections, not nonpartisan ones. Numerous commentators have suggested that nonpartisan judicial elections are partisan in all but name, but our findings point to an important role of political parties in connecting campaign contributions to judicial decisions under partisan elections that appears not the same under nonpartisan ones. Of course, there are many reasons to choose between nonpartisan and partisan elections on other grounds, but when it comes to an uncomfortably tight relationship between campaign money and judicial decisions, our article concludes that nonpartisan elections likely present fewer concerns.

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