University of Denver

Judicial Selection in the United States

Judges in the United States are selected through a variety of methods, from popular elections to appointment by chief executives, legislatures, or other judges. Some of these methods are more effective than others in assuring public confidence in the integrity and quality of our courts.

Senior Director
Senior Legal Assistant


  • To identify and promote models for choosing state and federal judges that promote and preserve fair, high quality, and trusted courts.

Through empirical analysis and recommendations, thought leadership, and substantive support, IAALS works to identify and promote models for choosing state and federal judges that emphasize qualifications and experience, limit political considerations and special interest influence, and provide transparency.

IAALS formerly housed this work under its Quality Judges Initiative until 2018.

Changes to existing processes for choosing, retaining, and evaluating judges are on the legislative agenda in states around the country. Lawmakers and fair courts advocates in a handful of states are working to replace politicized judicial selection systems with processes that better ensure judicial impartiality and accountability and public confidence in the courts. At the same time, in other states, lawmakers and special interests want to alter or abolish processes that achieve these goals.

With legal and empirical analysis and research-based recommendations, IAALS supports state efforts to promote and preserve fair, high quality, and trusted courts.

This publication answers many common questions about the court systems and judges in the United States, such as why we have both state and federal courts and how the differ, ​what types of state...
This unique resource that shines a light on each state and its specific methods for selecting and retaining judges. Only available from IAALS, these easy-to-read charts break down how judges reach...
IAALS has a deep and abiding interest in protecting the quality and integrity of the judiciary. With the assistance of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (Ret.), and based upon IAALS’ independent research...
This publication couples the desired attributes for court systems and individual judges identified by participants in the IAALS Roundtable on Judicial Selection with principles (or “cornerstones”)...
In March 2013, IAALS sponsored “An Uncommon Dialogue” about judicial selection. IAALS convened a diverse group of thirty legal experts for two days to share perspectives on essential attributes for...

According to Article II of the United States Constitution, the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint” most federal judges. In processes for selecting some of these federal judges, an additional component may be in place—one that resembles the judicial nominating commissions used in 33 states and the District of Columbia to choose state judges.

IAALS has conducted research on two such components:

  1. The federal judicial screening committees used by some U.S. Senators to vet potential judicial nominees and recommend individuals that the Senators might then submit to the White House; and
  2. The merit selection panels used by U.S. Court of Appeals judges in each circuit to screen applicants for bankruptcy judgeships and make recommendations regarding potential nominees.
  3. Non-Administrative Law Judges (Non-ALJs), who are executive branch adjudicators not governed by the Administrative Procedure Act.

Click here for information about Federal Judicial Screening Committees in place as of August 2017.

This report describes the committees in place and their significant variations in membership, appointment process, and, to the degree possible, operations. It suggests why senators and their staffs...
Despite the number of cases processed in U.S. bankruptcy courts and their significance in the financial lives of individuals and businesses alike, very little is known about how the judges who...
This report to the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) describes a large but relatively unknown group of executive branch adjudicators who are not “Administrative Law Judges” (ALJs...

When Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006, she committed herself to two things she cares passionately about: judicial independence and civics education. She began working on judicial independence at Georgetown Law School through the “Sandra Day O’Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary,” a series of conferences co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute in 2006 through 2009.

Through these conferences, various themes and conclusions emerged. With respect to independence of the judiciary, the conference proceedings reflected that fairness and impartiality may be at risk in state court systems, particularly with reference to the selection methods for those state court judges. A commission-based appointment and retention election system is far preferable to contested elections, because it protects fair and impartial courts, keeps politics out of the process, and lets voters hold judges accountable for their performance on the bench.

As her project at Georgetown Law School neared conclusion in 2010, Justice O’Connor wanted to take the next step and begin fostering change directly at the state level. On December 8, 2009, she launched the Quality Judges Initiative at IAALS. We are honored that Justice O’Connor chose to partner with us to continue her work on judicial selection through IAALS.

The O'Connor Advisory Committee concluded its work together in 2020.

Justice (Ret.), United States Supreme Court
Executive Director, Georgetown Program on State and Local Government Policy and Law (SALPAL)
United States Senate, 1987–2005
Partner, Alexander Dubose & Jefferson LLP
Immediate Past President, League of Women Voters of the United States
Chief Justice (Ret.), Arizona Supreme Court
Professor of Legal Ethics, University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law
Of Counsel, Finch McCranie, LLP
Partner and Founding Member, Maynard Cooper & Gale, PC
Former Governor of New Jersey, 1994–2001