Electing judges

So, as I'm sure I've mentioned, I'm teaching a class on Criminal Justice policy this semester.  Spent yesterday's class discussing an absolutely terrific book, Courtroom 302 by Steve Bogira.  While telling the story of America's justice system from the perspective a single courtroom, Bogira seems to hit on every major issue and failing in our current system.  And in a style that is as readable and compelling as a fast-paced novel.  Great stuff.  I was very pleased to see that most all my students really got a lot out of the book, too.  One interesting thing we could all agree upon is that electing judges is simply a bad idea.  Any way you slice it, it distorts justice.  Appointing justices surely has its flaws, but it is a helluva lot better.  That said, how timely to come across this post from Matt Yglesias yesterday.  Yglesias summarizes some recent research on electing judges:


Matias Iaryczower, Garrett Lewis and Matthew Shum from the CalTech
Division of Humanities and Social Sciences offer some useful perspective
in this paper (PDF):

In this paper, we address empirically the trade-offs
involved in choosing between bureaucrats and politicians. In order to do
this, we need to map institutions of selection and retention of public
officials to the type of public officials they induce. We do this by
specifying a collective decision-making model, and exploiting its
equilibrium information to obtain estimates of the unobservable types.
We focus on criminal decisions across US states’ Supreme Courts. We
find that justices that are shielded from voters’ influence on average
(i) have better information, (ii) are more likely to change their
preconceived opinions about a case, and (iii) are more effective (make
less mistakes) than their elected counterparts
. We evaluate how
performance would change if the courts replaced majority rule with
unanimity rule.

Here in NC, we've at least made the step of going to non-partisan judicial elections.  Still, far from perfect, but one of my students researching his term papers says that other studies show that judges elected in non-partisan elections are clearly better than those elected in partisan elections.  Alas, most states insist on continuing to elect their judges and I don't think there's much prospect for change on the horizon.  Of course, pretty much no other countries elect their judges and they think we are crazy (rightly) for doing so.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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