Do Partisan Elections of Judges Produce Unequal Justice? When Courts Review Employment Arbitrations
Michael H. LeRoy
University of Illinois College of Law
November 30, 2009
Illinois Public Law Research Paper No. 09-17
Partisan election of judges is a growing concern as large contributions pour into judicial elections. State judges raised $157 million for their campaign funds from 1999 to 2006. Caperton v. A.T. Massey Co. Inc., 129 S.Ct. 2252 (2009), ruled that a state supreme court justice who cast the deciding vote for a company whose president contributed $2.3 million to his campaign violated the losing company’s due process rights.
I examine whether partisan judicial elections affect court review of arbitrator rulings (called awards) in employment disputes. For this study, I added a new variable – method for selecting judges – to my database of 223 state court rulings from 1975-2008.
I relate this empirical research to a strategic model of corporate avoidance of liability in employment disputes. Some employers avoid lawsuits by requiring employment arbitration, and implementing favorable arbitration rules. When awards are appealed to court, employers continue to influence the outcome by designating the court for reviewing an award. This model suggests that some employers would expand their influence by strategically supporting judges who run for office in political campaigns.
I found that in state trial courts where an award was challenged, employees won only 32.1% of cases before party-affiliated judges. But in states where judges were appointed or elected in non-partisan races, employees prevailed in 52.7% of the cases.
The partisan election effect was not observed, however, in appellate cases. Employees won 43.2% of cases before party-affiliated judges, and 50.0% of cases before judges who were appointed or elected in non-partisan races.
My results provide preliminary and limited support for the concern that partisan judicial elections produce unequal justice for ordinary people who are not large campaign donors. But, there are important caveats. This study did not determine whether judges in these cases actually accepted campaign support from employer groups. These judges may have ruled through a more ideological prism than appointed and non-partisan judges.
In the same vein, the finding of no partisan effect at the appellate level is not conclusive – and does not mean that party-affiliated appellate judges are as neutral as their appointed counterparts. Even in partisan judicial elections, it appears that only some appellate candidates raise war chests and declare campaign positions. A seemingly biased judge, such as the justice in Caperton, can be outvoted by more neutral judges on the appellate panel, thereby muffling the effect of campaign spending in partisan elections.
My findings do not prove that employers seek venue before judges who receive their campaign contributions, but they offer preliminary statistical evidence that suggests that this is possible. The fact that employers can designate venue in an arbitration contract reinforces this possibility. In sum, the shocking example in Caperton, along with the preliminary data in my study, suggests that employers are able to expand the liability-avoidance model by donating to judges who would review their arbitration awards.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 51
Date posted: December 1, 2009