Judges for Sale: The Effect of Campaign Contributions on State Criminal Courts
50 Pages Posted: 10 Nov 2023 Last revised: 6 Feb 2024
Date Written: January 15, 2023
Do campaign contributions impact democratic processes? Using donation data from Texas, we show that criminal defense attorneys who contribute to a district judge’s electoral campaign are preferentially assigned by that judge to indigent defense cases, i.e., public contracts in which the state pays private attorneys to represent poor defendants.
We estimate that attorney donors receive twice as many cases as non-donors during the month of their campaign contribution. Nearly two-thirds of this increase is explained by the contribution itself, with the remainder attributable to shared preferences within attorney-judge pairs, such as those based on professional, ideological, political, or personal ties.
Defendants assigned to donor attorneys also fare worse in cases resolved in the month of contribution, with fewer cases dismissed and more defendants convicted and incarcerated. Further evidence suggests recipient judges close cases to cash out their attorney benefactors, at the expense of defendants. Our results provide some of the strongest causal evidence to date on the corrosive potential of campaign donations, including their impact on the right to counsel as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Keywords: campaign finance, criminal courts, right to counsel, 6th Amendment, government contracts, corruption, pay-to-play, quid pro quo, assigned counsel
JEL Classification: K40, D73, K14
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation