The Twist of Long Terms: Disasters, Elected Judges, and American Tort Law
56 Pages Posted: 5 Jul 2007 Last revised: 23 Mar 2015
Date Written: November 25, 2008
The received wisdom is that American judges rejected strict liability through the nineteenth and early twentieth century. To the contrary, a majority of state courts adopted Rylands v. Fletcher and strict liability for hazardous or unnatural activities after a series of flooding tragedies in the late nineteenth century. Federal judges and appointed state judges generally ignored or rejected Rylands, while elected state judges overwhelmingly adopted Rylands or a similar strict liability rule.
In moving from fault to strict liability, these judges were essentially responding to increased public fears of industrial or man-made hazards. Elected courts were more populist: They were more likely to adopt strict liability than appointed courts. But surprisingly, state courts elected to longer terms were the most populist. Many of these judges never expected to face another election, but even without direct political pressure, they were the most responsive group of judges in adopting Rylands after the floods.
This historical episode illuminates the differences between types of political influence on judges. Judicial elections generally may produce judges more sympathetic to public opinion and more responsive to recent events. Longer terms, shielding judges from opposing political pressure from industry favoring the fault rule, then allowed judges to follow those sympathies or new perceptions of public interest in favor of strict liability.
The historical record suggests that judicial elections plus long terms shaped a more responsive bench. A shorthand for these effects are: filtering, role fidelity, and fear and favor. First, these elections created a populist filter: Elections seemed to have filtered out some elite jurists from major urban centers and filtered in more local lawyer-politicians, who would be more connected to public opinion. Second, borrowing from the language used by nineteenth-century advocates of judicial elections and by modern historians, I suggest that the elected judges' "fidelity" to the people led them to perceive public opinion as an important factor in their decisions.
Even with filtering and role fidelity, judges elected to short terms would still face the reality of "fear and favor," due to special interests and partisan renomination politics. Elected judges with more job security could be more faithful to their role (hence, "role fidelity") and could follow their own perception of public interest or public opinion, rather than industrial interests. The Article concludes with some priorities for judicial reform based upon this historical episode.
Keywords: torts, legal history, judicial elections, judicial politics, empirical studies
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