New Study: Partisan Judicial Elections Lead to Poorer Quality Courts

December 15, 2014

According to a study recently released by the Manuel H. Johnson Center for the Political Economy at Troy University, Alabama should move from partisan elections of judges to commission-based gubernatorial appointment, as outlined in the O'Connor Judicial Selection Plan, in order to ensure a stable, predictable, and fair legal system for businesses and promote long-term economic growth.

This recommendation is based on an analysis of data provided through the Institute for Legal Reform's State Liability Systems Ranking Study. The ongoing study is conducted for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and ILR by the 
Harris Poll and is based on a survey of more than 1,000 attorneys at large companies around the country, to “explore how fair and reasonable the states' tort liability systems are perceived to be by U.S. businesses.” The study was conducted annually from 2002 to 2008 and has been conducted every other year since then, with the most recent study for 2012.

Surveyed attorneys rate or grade each state with which they are familiar on ten aspects of the legal environment in that state. From these ratings, each state is given an overall score and ranking relative to other states. Scholars have used these scores and rankings as an indicator of the quality of state judiciaries.

Using results from the 2002 to 2012 studies, the Johnson Center study explores the correlation between states' methods for selecting judges and their scores on judges' competence and judges' impartiality, as well as their overall rankings. In each of these areas, the average score for partisan election states is lower than the average score for states with six other judicial selection methods. States in which the governor appoints judges, and especially those where a nominating commission is used, have the highest average score in all three areas.

According to the study's author, this “empirical evidence seems to suggest that partisan judicial elections lead to relatively poorer quality legal institutions and undermine the rule of law.” He goes on to call for an end to judicial elections in Alabama.

Alabama judges have been chosen in partisan elections since 1867. Statewide citizens' conferences convened in 1966, 1973, and 1995 recommended that a commission-based gubernatorial appointment process be used to select all judges or to fill midterm vacancies, but the legislature did not act on these recommendations.