Are Elections Good for the Judiciary?

From the LSE US Centre’s daily blog on American Politics and Policy:

In the US, state Supreme Court judges are either appointed, elected, or more commonly, are subject to retention elections. Traditionally, electoral accountability boosts a court’s perceived legitimacy, but can this be undermined with the negative campaigning that can often come with elections? In new research, Benjamin Woodson examines this relationship, finding that the negative effects of campaigning can outweigh the positive boost provided through electoral accountability only in states with a large amount of campaign activity.

Elections are a political institution that are revered in theory and loathed in practice by the American public. The reverence stems from them providing the essential foundation of legitimacy for any democratic system. The loathing comes from the campaigning and political machinations surrounding elections.

This ambivalence applies to elections for executive or legislative positions but increases for elections to the judiciary, where many scholars (but not the majority of the American public) thinks it’s inappropriate for judges to be elected. One aspect of many scholars’ concern stems from the potential that elections and especially the campaigning that surrounds them may undermine the legitimacy of courts. My analysis of a survey administered by YouGov with a national sample of 819 respondents shows that these scholars are partially correct but do not take into account the multiple ways in which elections affect legitimacy perceptions.

The ambivalence Americans feel toward judicial elections causes them to have two opposing effects on the amount of legitimacy the American public attributes to state Supreme Courts. Since elections are the foundation of democratic legitimacy, they provide a boost to a court’s perceived legitimacy through electoral accountability, but this effect is counteracted by the negative influence on perceived legitimacy caused by campaign activities such as attack ads and campaign donations.


The full blog post is available here.

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