Friday, December 4, 2015

Judicial Elections and Their Impacts

Two studies this week detail something that we probably already knew, or could guess: State court judicial elections impact the protection of unpopular fundamental rights.

One study, How Judicial Elections Impact Criminal Cases, by Kate Berry at the Brennan Center, concludes that criminal defendants get a raw deal by state court judges the closer it comes to election time. In particular:

  • The more frequently television ads air during an election, the less likely state supreme court justices are, on average, to rule in favor of criminal defendants.
  • Trial judges in Pennsylvania and Washington sentence defendants convicted of serious felonies to longer sentences the closer they are to re-election.
  • In states that retain judges through elections, the more supportive the public is of capital punishment, the more likely appellate judges are to affirm death sentences.
  • In the 37 states that heard capital cases over the past 15 years, appointed judges reversed death sentences 26 percent of the time, judges facing retention elections reversed 15 percent of the time, and judges faces competitive elections reversed 11 percent of the time.
  • Trial judges in Alabama override jury verdicts sentencing criminal defendants to life and instead impose death sentences more often in election years.

The other study, A Handful of Elected State Judges Continue to Deny Marriage Equality, by Billy Corriher at the Center for American Progress, links judges subject to judicial election or retention to their willingness to recognize marriage equality after Obergefell. According to the study,

The counties where judges or magistrates still refuse to recognize marriage equality are in states that have seen increasingly politicized judicial elections and a flood of campaign cash into those races.

Corriher's conclusion: "Politicized elections require judges to cater to public opinion, instead of protecting individual rights in the face of public pressure."

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