The Complicated Business of State Supreme Court Elections: An Empirical Perspective

46 Pages Posted: 11 Aug 2016 Last revised: 11 May 2018

Date Written: May 1, 2018


Proponents of judicial elections and related campaign activities emphasize existing First Amendment jurisprudence as well as similarities linking publicly-elected state judges and other publicly-elected state officials. Opponents focus on judicial campaign contributions’ corrosive effects, including their potential to unduly influence judicial outcomes. Using a comprehensive data set of 2,345 business-related cases decided by state supreme courts across all fifty states between 2010–12, judicial election critics, including Professor Joanna Shepherd, emphasize the potential for bias and find that campaign contributions from business sources to state supreme court judicial candidates corresponded with candidates’ pro-business votes as justices. While Shepherd’s main findings generally replicate, additional (and alternative) analyses introduce new findings that raise complicating wrinkles for Shepherd’s strong normative claims. Findings from this study illustrate that efforts to influence judicial outcomes are not the exclusive domain of business interests. That is, judicial campaign contributions from non- (and anti-) business interests increase the probability of justices’ votes favoring non-business interests. As a result, critiques of judicial elections cannot properly rely exclusively on the influence of business interests. Moreover, that both business and non-business interests can successfully influence judicial outcomes through campaign contributions point in different (and possibly conflicting) normative directions. On the one hand, even if one agrees that the judicial branch qualitatively differs from the political and executive branches in terms of assessing campaign contributions’ proper role, that the potential to influence judicial outcomes is available to any interest group (willing to invest campaign contributions) complicates popular critiques of judicial elections. On the other hand, the same empirical findings also plausibly strengthen critiques of judicial elections, especially for those who view the judicial domain differently than other political domains.

Keywords: Empirical, Judicial Elections, Tort Reform

Suggested Citation

Heise, Michael, The Complicated Business of State Supreme Court Elections: An Empirical Perspective (May 1, 2018). Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 17-25, Available at SSRN: or

Michael Heise (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

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