Electing Judges: The Surprising Effects of Campaigning on Judicial Legitimacy


In Electing Judges, leading judicial politics scholar James L. Gibson responds tothe growing chorus of critics who fear that the politics of running for office undermine judicial independence and even the rule of law. While many people have opinions on the topic, few have supported them with actual empirical evidence. Gibson rectifies this situation, offering the most systematic and comprehensive study to date of the impact of campaigns on public perceptions of fairness, impartiality, and the legitimacy of ...

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Electing Judges: The Surprising Effects of Campaigning on Judicial Legitimacy

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In Electing Judges, leading judicial politics scholar James L. Gibson responds tothe growing chorus of critics who fear that the politics of running for office undermine judicial independence and even the rule of law. While many people have opinions on the topic, few have supported them with actual empirical evidence. Gibson rectifies this situation, offering the most systematic and comprehensive study to date of the impact of campaigns on public perceptions of fairness, impartiality, and the legitimacy of elected state courts—and his findings are both counterintuitive and controversial.
Gibson finds that ordinary Americans do not conclude from campaign promises that judges are incapable of making impartial decisions. Instead, he shows, they understand the process of deciding cases to be an exercise in policy making, rather than of simply applying laws to individual cases—and consequently think it’s important for candidates to reveal where they stand on important issues. Negative advertising also turns out to have a limited effect on perceptions of judicial legitimacy, though the same cannot be said for widely hated campaign contributions.
Taking both the good and bad into consideration, Gibson argues persuasively that elections are ultimately beneficial in boosting the institutional legitimacy of courts, despite the slight negative effects of some campaign activities. Electing Judges will initiate a lively debate inside both the halls of justice and the academy.

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Editorial Reviews

Lawrence M. Friedman
"An important work full of insights and surprises—and one that has significant policy implications."
Paul Brace
"Judicial independence is one of our most sacred institutional values, and the means of securing it in state courts has been a source of continuing debate. Gibson’s writing is superb, distilling arcane analytical and theoretical issues to show that, contrary to widely held views, people are more willing to accept the decisions of judges when they have the power to reject those who perform poorly, and thus elections build rather than corrode legitimacy. Electing Judges is a monumental achievement."
Melinda Gann Hall
"Electing Judges represents a perfect nexus between theoretically driven political science scholarship and real-world politics. Using evidence from survey experiments while remaining agnostic in the normative debate, Gibson disproves the conventional wisdom about how Americans perceive judges, courts, and the judicial selection process. This superbly crafted work should be the cornerstone of any serious discussion of judicial power and institutional reform."
Chris W. Bonneau
James L. Gibson is an intellectual giant in the field of judicial politics, and Electing Judges may be his most important contribution to date. This is a first-rate piece of scholarship that speaks directly to the central arguments in a highly contentious ongoing debate. For all interested in the judicial selection process, Gibson’s evidence is powerful and simply cannot be ignored.
Political Communication - Matthew J. Streb
“Although there have been many doomsday scenarios put forth by those opposed to judicial elections, there is virtually no empirical evidence—positive or negative—regarding the effects of politicized judicial campaigns on judicial legitimacy. Enter James L. Gibson’s book,  Electing Judges. Using both experimental vignettes and panel surveys, Gibson has written one of the most important books on the effects of judicial elections. Indeed, it may be the most important book on the topic since Dubois’s From Ballot to Bench.”
Library of Law and Liberty - G. Alan Tarr
“This careful study dispels a number of myths about popular attitudes toward the courts and is a major contribution to the debate over state judicial selection. A number of states are currently reconsidering how they select their judges. Gibson’s careful study can—and should-make a significant contribution to those deliberations.”
Public Opinion Quarterly
"Simply put, this book provides an extremely important theoretical and empirical contribution to the study of judicial elections and legitimacy. It also contains numerous normative, policy, and institutional implications relevant to how we select our judges in the US. Gibson does a superb job of addressing claims by opponents of judicial elections in an objective, balanced fashion and the variety of research designs and data analyses only boosts the validity of his conclusions. Gibson also does a masterful job of elaborating on the substantive implications of his findings. On the whole, the book is extremely well written, well executed, and well argued."
Perspectives on Politics
“Social science at its best combines theoretical rigor with methodological precision to provide answers to pressing real-world questions, and that is what Gibson delivers in this book. In Electing Judges, Gibson has delivered a path-breaking and provocative book that serves as a reasoned empirical response to a good deal of conventional wisdom. It promises to be of interest to those who study law and courts, the effect of campaigns on the views and opinions of citizens, the underpinnings of judicial legitimacy, or state politics.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226291086
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 8/30/2012
  • Series: Chicago Studies in American Politics Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

James L. Gibson is the Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government at Washington University in St. Louis and Professor Extraordinaire in Political Science at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. He is the author or coauthor of eight books, including Citizens, Courts, and Confirmations, and is the recipient of an APSA Lifetime Achievement Award.

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Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-29110-9

Chapter One


In 2002, the US Supreme Court ruled that candidates for judicial offices, including incumbent judges, have free-speech rights that allow them to make policy statements during their campaigns (Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, 536 U.S. 765 [2002]). This decision has caused considerable consternation within the legal community, including among many legal scholars, based on the fear that this newly announced judicial right will undermine the perceived fairness and impartiality of courts within the public at large. The assumption seems to be that what candidates for judicial offices say during their campaigns can cause fundamental disruptions in how citizens view and evaluate judicial institutions. If so, then this is a very high price to pay for extending these speech rights to judicial candidates. As the dissenters in the Supreme Court argued,

Prohibiting a judicial candidate from pledging or promising certain results if elected directly promotes the State's interest in preserving public faith in the bench. When a candidate makes such a promise during a campaign, the public will no doubt perceive that she is doing so in the hope of garnering votes. And the public will in turn likely conclude that when the candidate decides an issue in accord with that promise, she does so at least in part to discharge her undertaking to the voters in the previous election and to prevent voter abandonment in the next. The perception of that unseemly quid pro quo—judicial candidates' promises on issues in return for the electorate's votes at the polls—inevitably diminishes the public's faith in the ability of judges to administer the law without regard to personal or political self-interest. (Ginsberg dissent, joined by Stevens, Souter, and Breyer, footnotes omitted, 536 U.S. 16–17)

Although judicial candidates are not now permitted every type of speech (promises about how one would rule in specific cases are legitimately proscribed, at least at the moment), this Supreme Court decision has opened the door to freewheeling discussions of policy issues by both incumbents and challengers for judicial offices. Consequently, judicial elections now focus on judges' ideologies and judicial policy making to a far greater degree than in the past.

At the same time, interest groups and legal activists have become increasingly desirous of influencing the outcomes of state judicial elections. Their interest in state courts stems partly from the relative inactivity of the US Supreme Court (which now issues fewer than 100 full opinions per year) and partly from the realization that policies made by state courts can have enormous economic, political, and social consequences (e.g., so-called tort reform). As a result, we have witnessed in the last few years an unprecedented injection of money into state judicial elections (see the activism of the US Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Trial Lawyers America, now known as the American Association for Justice; see also Echeverria 2001). The confluence of broadened freedom for judges to speak out on issues, the increasing importance of state judicial policies, and the infusion of money into judicial campaigns have produced what may be described as the "perfect storm" of judicial elections. This storm is radically reshaping the atmosphere of state judicial elections, as it gathers strength and spreads across the nation.

No better illustration of this phenomenon can be found than in the judicial elections of 2004. According to the Brennan Center at New York University Law School, candidates spent an all-time high of $24 million on advertising in state supreme court? elections in 2004, a dramatic increase of almost 20% compared with 2000 (Goldberg et al. 2005; see also Goldberg, Holman, and Sanchez 2002). A total of 180 ads were produced, with 42,249 airings in 15 states. This sort of campaign effort seems to be becoming increasingly common in the American states.

With this new style of free-for-all judicial elections has come a blizzard of commentaries on the likelihood of dire consequences from this politicization of state courts (on the politicization of judiciaries worldwide, see Tate and Vallinder [1995]). Many commentators fear the worst, arguing that the very legitimacy of the legal system may be eroded as people come to see law and courts as little more than ordinary political institutions and therefore worthy of their contempt and disrespect. Indeed, the original justification for Minnesota's prohibition on campaign speech was precisely the desire to protect the legitimacy of the state judiciaries (but see Dimino 2003). Minnesota contended that legitimacy requires the appearance of impartiality, that the appearance of partiality can undermine the confidence citizens have in their courts (legitimacy), and that legitimacy is crucial to the effective functioning of courts (see Brief and Appendix for Respondents 2002; see also Schultz 2006). One legal scholar opines,

When judicial decisions are seen as politicized rather than independent, or as done in the service of a special interest group or to advance judges' self-interest rather than in a neutral and independent spirit, the sense of fairness and justice that is the binding force of the Rule of Law becomes exhausted and the system is weakened. Disobedience and avoidance of legal obligations can be expected to rise in direct proportion to declining respect for law. As respect for the fairness of law diminishes, greater government force must be used to ensure obedience. (Barnhizer 2001, 371, footnotes omitted)

Alarm bells are being sounded throughout the United States, announcing the imminent demise of legitimacy in the country's elected state courts.

To date, however, little rigorous evidence has been produced (one way or the other) on whether policy statements made during campaigns actually have any consequences at all for perceptions of judicial impartiality. Voters who want to vote on the basis of policy considerations, for instance, are unlikely to be put off by hearing the policy views of judicial candidates. Others may distinguish between general statements of policy preferences and specific prejudgments in individual cases. Indeed, permitting policy debates may have useful consequences, such as allowing citizens to base their voting decisions on more rational criteria (rather than on what analysts generally assume to be dicey criteria such as the candidates' genders or inferred ethnicities; see, e.g., Baum 1988–89; Baum and Hojnacki 1992; McDermott 1997; but see also Hall 2001; Bonneau and Hall 2009). And whatever diminished impartiality courts and judges may suffer from today may be due to factors other than policy commitments, such as the use of attack ads or conflicts of interests generated by campaign contributions from litigants, or both. We simply do not know what effect the Supreme Court's ruling will have on elected judiciaries.

We do, however, know something about how citizens perceive judicial impartiality and, more generally, procedural fairness. This well-developed body of theory has demonstrated, for instance, that impartiality is a crucial component of perceived fairness. According to Tyler (2001, 422; see also Tyler 2006), when people assess the procedural fairness of institutions, they are "especially influenced by evidence of even-handedness, factuality, and the lack of bias or favoritism (neutrality)"—in short, by impartiality (see also Baird 2001). Moreover, according to Hibbing and Theiss-Morse (2001, 2002), it is precisely the perception that members of Congress make their political decisions on the basis of partial (e.g., self-interested) criteria that threatens the legitimacy of that institution. In the judicial case, it seems highly likely that campaign contributions from those who litigate cases before a judge generate at least the appearance of self-interested partiality and procedural unfairness. Declaring a policy view in a campaign statement may also impugn procedural fairness by implying ideological bias and the unwillingness to judge each case de novo, on its own merits. Even the use of so-called attack ads can threaten perceived impartiality by portraying candidates for judicial offices as nothing more than ordinary politicians—in bed with special interest groups, supremely self-interested, and motivated by politics, not law and legality. Thus, the current debate over the campaign tactics of judges maps neatly onto theories concerned with institutional legitimacy, procedural justice, and the effects of campaigns on the attitudes, beliefs, and expectations of ordinary people.

My purpose in this book is therefore to investigate the impact of campaign activity on the perceived impartiality and institutional legitimacy of courts. I focus on judicial races in the state of Kentucky and employ a panel survey of a representative sample of ordinary Kentuckians. Since the same individuals were interviewed before, during, and after the judicial elections of 2006, my analysis focuses on how campaign activities change people's attitudes, with change being measured with greater rigor than has been possible in earlier research (based overwhelmingly on cross-sectional surveys). The analysis reported here makes uncommonly strong claims to certainty about causal relationships, based in part on the availability of data over time, but based as well on several experiments that were embedded within the representative survey. The most general conclusion of this research is that campaign activity can indeed shape the attitudes and perceptions of ordinary citizens, but not necessarily in the ways commonly assumed. Owing to its central and fundamental location undergirding this research, I begin the analysis with a thorough explication of legitimacy theory.


Politicians and scholars worldwide have long been impressed with the fragility of judicial power. When it comes to securing compliance with their decisions, courts are said to have neither the power of the "purse"—the ability to raise and expropriate money to encourage compliance—nor the power of the "sword"—the ability to coerce compliance. In the absence of these tools, courts in reality have only a single form of political capital: legitimacy. Compliance with court decisions is contingent upon judicial institutions being considered legitimate. Legitimacy is a normative concept, basically meaning that an institution is acting appropriately and correctly, within its mandate. Generally speaking, a great deal of social science research has shown that people obey law more out of a felt normative compunction deriving from legitimacy than from instrumental calculations of the costs and benefits of compliance (e.g., Tyler 1990, 2006).

As a consequence, political scientists have paid considerable attention to the legitimacy of courts. The empirical analysis of legitimacy dates back to Easton's work on "systems theory" (Easton 1965), with Easton substituting the phrase "diffuse support" for judgments of legitimacy. Diffuse support is a fundamental commitment to an institution and a willingness to support the institution that extends beyond mere satisfaction with the performance of the institution at the moment ("specific support"). The idea here is that institutions—especially courts—must be free to make decisions in opposition to the preferences of the majority; indeed, it is specifically a function of courts (at least in the American and many European cases, where the judiciary is vested with the power of having the last say on the meaning of the constitution) to overturn the actions of the majority when those actions infringe upon the fundamental rights of minorities. Courts must on occasion make hard decisions that are greatly displeasing to the majority—as in freeing obviously guilty criminals due to violations of due process, restraining the majority from imposing its religious beliefs on the entire society, and spying on dissenters and malcontents who threaten the political security of the majority. If democracy can be simply defined as majority rule, with institutionalized respect for the rights of the minority, especially the rights allowing the minority to compete for political power (on democracy, see Dahl 1971), then the judiciary clearly represents the "minority rights" half of the equation. If courts are dependent upon majority approval for their decisions to be accepted, then one of the most important political functions of courts is in jeopardy.

This approach to legitimacy led Easton to coin a telling phrase: institutions require a "reservoir of goodwill" in order to function effectively. Gibson and Caldeira (2009a) liken this reservoir to loyalty, even to the loyalty between two friends. One may disappoint a friend without necessarily destroying the friendship. Loyalty to another requires standing by that other even when one might disapprove of the other's actions. Indeed, it is easy to be loyal to another who acts in an approving fashion; the test of loyalty involves disapproval or discontent. In a similar fashion, institutions do not require legitimacy when they are satisfying people with their policies. Legitimacy becomes crucial in the context of dissatisfaction; legitimacy requires an "objection precondition." Problems of compliance do not typically arise when court decisions align with the preferences of the institution's constituents; when they do not align, legitimacy or institutional loyalty provides the rationale for accepting or acquiescing to the ruling of a court.

This concept of legitimacy is related to unwillingness to punish institutions for their actions, which is historically important in the American case and of considerable contemporary relevance in the European case. The federal judiciary, including the US Supreme Court, is not the subject of much discussion in the American Constitution. Indeed, practically none of the important aspects of the structure and function of the judiciary are determined by the Constitution, ranging from the jurisdiction of the courts, to the size of the courts and the remuneration for judges, to fundamental powers, such as judicial review. To take just the simplest structural factor, the size of the US Supreme Court can be changed by ordinary legislation, and in fact it has been changed several times throughout American history.

Political elites who are dissatisfied with court opinions oft en seek to punish the institution through structural or functional "reform." The most common such ploy is to alter the jurisdiction of the federal courts; every year numerous bills are introduced in Congress to prohibit the federal judiciary from ruling on various hot-button issues: ranging from the Safeguarding Our Religious Liberties Act, H.R. 4379 (introduced by Representative Ron Paul from Texas), with the purpose of eliminating federal court jurisdiction over state and local policies regarding the free exercise or establishment of religion, any privacy claim related to issues of sexual practices, orientation, or reproduction, and any equal protection claim based on the right to marry without regard to sex or sexual orientation, to the Congressional Accountability for Judicial Activism Act of 2004 (introduced in the House of Representatives by Representative Ron Lewis of Kentucky and 26 cosponsors), which would empower Congress to reverse by a two-thirds vote any judgment of the US Supreme Court that concerns the constitutionality of an Act of Congress (H.R. 3920). Specific, high-stakes court decisions have drawn vicious and legitimacy-challenging criticism—as in the direct attack by various law professors on the court's legitimacy after its ruling in Bush v. Gore (the case that effectively decided the 2000 presidential election)—and there is no shortage of threats to the judiciary from the religious right, right-wing terrorists and murderers, and kooks. Serious proposals to change the structure of the judiciary have been floated—for example, various plans to convert the life tenure of Supreme Court judges to a fixed term. For instance, Farnsworth (2004, 2) asserts, "In recent years at least ten distinguished scholars (as well as two distinguished judges and a distinguished journalist) have proposed abolishing life tenure for Supreme Court Justices and replacing it with fixed terms of years in office." While not all dissatisfaction with judges in the United States is focused on the Supreme Court, there can be little doubt that the justices of the court are correct to worry about the implications of the current political climate in the country for the legitimacy of law and courts in general and their court in particular. Finally, some longitudinal studies of trust in the US Supreme Court argue that partisan polarization in attitudes toward the court has risen significantly in recent times (e.g., Mate and Wright 2006). From Roosevelt's court-packing scheme during the New Deal?? to contemporary refusal to increase the pay of federal judges, the legislative and executive branches have tried to impress on judges their vulnerability to political displeasure.


Excerpted from ELECTING JUDGES by JAMES L. GIBSON Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments

One The “New Style” Judicial Elections in the American States 
Two Republican Party of Minnesota v. White and Perceptions of Judicial Impartiality
Three Can Campaign Activity Cross the Line?
Four Diffuse Support for a State Supreme Court: Judicial Legitimacy in Kentucky
Five Expectancy Theory and Judicial Legitimacy
Six Judges, Elections, and the American Mass Public: The Effects of Judicial Campaigns on the Legitimacy of Courts
Seven  Judicial Campaigns, Elections for Judges, and Court Legitimacy:
  Do Judicial Elections Really Stink?

Appendix A Legal Developments Post-White
Appendix B The Surveys  
Appendix C Experimental Vignettes
Appendix D Question Wording
Appendix E The Distributions of Key Analytical Variables
Appendix F Interactive Analysis
Appendix G Measuring Support for Democratic Institutions and Processes
Appendix H Question Wording
Appendix I Adding Control Variables


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