Attacking Judges: The New Politics of State Supreme Court Election Campaigns
37 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2010 Last revised: 4 Apr 2010
Date Written: March 15, 2010
Recent trends in judicial elections, including expensive rough-and-tumble campaigns characterized by televised attack advertising and politicized discourse, are causing advocacy groups and legal scholars to condemn the practice of electing judges. This paper addresses an important aspect of this controversy by evaluating whether attack advertising and liberalized speech codes brought about by Republican Party of Minnesota v. White (2002) have had detrimental effects on the electoral performance of incumbents in state supreme courts. In doing so, I assess whether crucial determinants of the incumbency advantage identified in past studies continue to influence supreme court elections in this new era of judicial campaigning. I also draw careful distinctions between partisan and nonpartisan elections. My specific focus is on 73 supreme court justices seeking reelection in nineteen states from 2002 through 2006 and CMAG advertising data on the messages broadcast to electorates. Likewise, I examine official campaign finance reports, to distinguish the effects of campaign spending from television advertising. Overall, I find that attack ads have deleterious effects but only in nonpartisan elections. Further, less restrictive speech codes actually improve incumbents’ vote shares. Finally, factors indicative of discerning voter choices still have predictive power, even after dramatic transformations in the electoral context. Collectively, these findings demonstrate that the assertions of judicial reform advocates merit empirical scrutiny and that the sharp attacks on partisan elections should be reassessed. These findings also illustrate the powerful impact of institutional arrangements in structuring political processes and the analytical advantages of studying state supreme courts.
Keywords: judicial elections; negative campaigning; state supreme courts
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