Michael E. Solimine, Independence, Accountability, and the Case for State Judicial Elections. ELECTION LAW JOURNAL, Volume 9, Number 3 (2010). Note: Solimine’s article is a book review of: Chris W. Bonneau and Melinda Gann Hall, In Defense of Judicial Elections. New York and London: Routledge (2009). Section 1 – Introduction Central theme: relationship between elections and judicial accountability and independence. Solimine’s interpretation of Bonneau and Hall’s argument: “Voters are, in various ways, more engaged with judicial elections than is usually thought, and that this is a good thing, since state judges are political actors who should be accountable like any other public official.” Solimine notes that the book has received a fair amount of public criticism for the argument that elections are the best way to ensure judicial accountability. Bonneau and Hall’s two principal goals of their book: (i) to bring empirical evidence, much of it generated by themselves, to a wider audience (they see the evidence as demonstrating that the public is more fully engaged in state supreme court elections than originally thought); and (ii) to argue that contested elections for state judges are appropriate and efficient ways to make judges accountable for their actions, and superior to alternatives such as putatively merit-based appointments. Solimine’s opinion: Bonneau and Hall succeed on their first goal but fall short on their second goal. Section 2 – Judicial Elections: Empirical And Normative Dimensions Solimine’s introductory comment: “For many decades, as [Bonneau and Hall] observe, luminaries in legal circles have argued against state judicial elections, on the basis that they undermine the necessary independence of judges in a system of separated powers. Likewise, these critics often argue, elections are poor vehicles to hold judges accountable, because they are almost always characterized by low information, low turnout, and other maladies.” Bonneau and Hall rely on data from state supreme court elections from all fifty states from the years 1990-2004. Within this data, they then focus on several benchmarks (see below) regarding the efficacy of judicial elections. Roll-off: when persons vote for other candidates or issues on the ballot, but then do not vote for judicial candidates at all. o Primary sources of roll-off: disinterest and lack of knowledge of the electorate in judicial elections. o Roll-off in judicial elections has been a historical problem; Bonneau and Hall’s data shows an average roll-off in judicial elections of 23%. Solimine notes, however, that roll-off tends to significantly decrease in more contested and competitive elections. o Republican Party of Minnesota v. White (where United States Supreme Court loosened restraints on candidate speech during state judicial campaigns) – Bonneau and Hall believe that the decision has had little effect on voter participation in judicial elections. Solimine notes, however, that other studies suggest that partisan races with low roll-off may still decrease public confidence and respect for the judiciary. o Voter mobilization to remedy roll-off in judicial elections: Increase campaign spending and thus the dissemination of information to the electorate. Problem: there is no “scientific” or “real world” evidence that increased campaign spending and political ads actually change the public’s perception of the judiciary. Quality of Candidates: measured by law schools attended, prior experience as a judge, and other factors. o Bonneau and Hall conclude that voters distinguish between candidates on these grounds and generally opt for more qualified candidates. Various reforms advanced to change state judicial elections (Bonneau and Hall’s arguments against them and in favor of partisan elections): (i) switching from partisan to nonpartisan elections (eliminates the party label on the ballot) (ii) adopting the Missouri Plan (eliminates competitive races in lieu of post-appointment retention elections and decreases voter participation and knowledge) (iii) merit selection plans (characterized by intense partisanship, cronyism, and elitism) Section 3 – The Prospects For And Limits Of Defending Judicial Elections This section is devoted to Solimine’s criticism of Bonneau and Hall’s empirical study. Problem #1: The study is limited entirely to state supreme court elections; no data on state trial and appellate court elections. Solimine: “Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that lower court elections in all states are marked, with very few exceptions, by low turnout, high roll-off, and robust reelection rates for incumbents, especially given that most incumbents (in those states with putatively contested elections) run unopposed.” (i.e., Cuyahoga County) Problem #2: Solimine disagrees with Bonneau and Hall’s contention that voters in state supreme court elections are actually making informed choices. Solimine: this contention can only be inferred since Bonneau and Hall did not directly survey voters. Solimine also points to studies showing that voters rely heavily on party affiliation, incumbency, and name recognition. Problem #3: Impact of campaign contributions on how judges render decisions Bonneau and Hall fail to address this issue. Solimine points to studies suggesting that judges do favor attorneys and other public interest groups that have contributed to their campaigns. Problem #4: Voter juxtaposition. On the one hand, “voters often report in polls that they view contentious judicial campaigns and partisan elections as lowering the perceived fairness and legitimacy of state courts.” On the other hand, “polls sometimes show that voters, while concerned about fair courts, also want to retain election systems, and referenda to replace elections with variants of the Missouri Plan have been voted down.” o Solimine’s contention: voter juxtaposition is the result of the public having inconsistent and/or incomplete information about the candidates. (i.e., perfect reason for creating a Qualifications Committee) Section 4 – Conclusion: What Is To Be Done? Solimine’s conclusion: The status quo will hold. The Missouri Plan or other forms of meritbased selection will not replace partisan and nonpartisan elections for state court judges. Reason: “Powerful interest groups have a stake in the current system. Consider the major political parties, which see judges and their staffs as sources of patronage; and groups such as local prosecutors, from whose ranks judges are often drawn, and who support the ‘law-and-order’ campaigns of judges; and, perhaps surprisingly, many judges (especially in the lower courts) themselves, who attained and often retained their jobs under the current system.” Solimine predicts that only incremental changes will happen – e.g., tinkering with recusal standards; production of voter guides prior to elections; adoption of some form quasi-merit selection to fill judicial vacancies (i.e., our ad hoc Qualifications Committee); ceasing publicly financed judicial races. Ultimately, the goal must be to improve meaningful voter participation in state judicial elections. There will not be a national solution; experimentation at the state level (i.e., a Qualifications Committee) will, in reality, be the only way to improve the current system.