The Impact of ‘Merit Selection’ on the Characteristics of Rhode Island Judges
18 Pages Posted: 3 May 2010 Last revised: 24 Sep 2015
Date Written: April 30, 2010
As part of a symposium examining the impact of a merit selection system adopted for state court judges in Rhode Island in 1993, I attempted to identify any statistically significant differences in the characteristics of “merit selection” judges and their predecessors. I found that merit selection appears to have had little if any impact on most of the background characteristics I studied, which is consistent with most of the literature on the subject. However, I found that merit selection judges are less likely than their predecessors to have graduated from Providence College, and far fewer graduated from Boston University Law School, suggesting more diversity in educational background. On the other hand, an increasing number of judges chosen under merit selection attended the same law school – Suffolk – and even under merit selection over half of the judges selected attended either BU or Suffolk. This “preference” for graduates from Suffolk under merit selection may be part of a general trend suggested by the data away from preferring judicial candidates who have attended more prestigious law schools.
By far, the most robust finding of the possible impact of merit selection is the decline in the number of applicants selected who had worked in state government. Only 1 in 5 of the merit selection judges worked in the General Assembly as legislators or legislative counsel to House or Senate leadership. Reducing the influence of the General Assembly on the judiciary was a primary motivation for the switch to merit selection, and at least by this measure, the early returns suggest it may be helping to accomplish that goal.
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