The Competitiveness of Female Candidates in Judicial Elections: An Analysis of the North Carolina Trial Court Races

Article excerpt

The extent to which state judgeships are accessible to women raises important concerns about using elections as a method of judicial selection. Even though the judicial selection debate has centered on whether the selection process should foster judicial accountability or judicial independence, there seems to be widespread agreement that states should adopt a selection method that at least ensures that all qualified candidates have equal access to state judgeships. (1) As women comprise an increasing percentage of the legal profession, their access to state judgeships is affected by their ability to compete effectively in state judicial elections. (2) Therefore, any study that explores the impact of gender upon judicial elections will add to the debate over the appropriateness of using elections to select state court judges.

Although numerous studies have examined the impact of gender upon political campaigns, research concerning the women who campaign in judicial elections has been strikingly limited. (3) This study fills that void in the existing literature on judicial selection and gender politics by examining whether, or to what extent, gender affects judicial campaigns and judicial elections. Specifically, it provides one of the few empirical comparisons of the women and men who have campaigned for elective state judgeships. Indeed, the findings presented here will contribute to our understanding of the competitiveness of female candidates in judicial elections and, to a lesser extent, the accessibility of judicial elections.

This study adopts the methodology found in existing political science research. It uses campaign contribution totals and what percentage of the vote candidates received as indicators of electoral competitiveness. (4) Drawing upon the research on female political candidates and judicial selection, this study also assumes that money plays an important--albeit not determinative--role in mounting viable campaigns for political and judicial office. (5) Similarly, the percentage of the vote provides a very good measure of electoral competitiveness because it, more accurately than whether a candidate wins or loses, indicates how competitive candidates are in comparison to their opponents. (6) For example, a candidate who wins by ten percentage points is considered electorally stronger (more competitive) than a candidate who wins by two percentage points. Finally, this study employs aggregate comparisons and multivariate analysis to assess whether female candidates were as competitive as male candidates when pursuing elective state judgeships.

The general elections for the North Carolina District Court held between 1994 and 1998 provide a good set of races to explore how women competed for elected state judgeships. The North Carolina District Court is the state's minor trial court. As such, it hears misdemeanors, civil suits in which less than $10,000 is in jeopardy, and selected family cases. Judicial candidates run for district court seats from geographical districts (judicial districts) that are dispersed throughout the state of North Carolina. Interestingly, these judicial districts do not correspond closely with other political districts: they can cross county lines or encompass one county, and they do not have the same geographic parameters as state legislative or congressional districts. District court judges are the most electorally accountable judges in North Carolina because, in contrast to higher state court judges who serve eight-year terms, their terms of office are four years. During the 1994 to 1998 election cycles, North Carolina used partisan elections to select district court judges as well as appellate court judges. (7) The district court races held during this time netted impressive results. Sixty-eight contested races occurred over these three general-election cycles. Forty-three women competed for thirty-four seats; these women ran as incumbents, as challengers, and as open-seat candidates; they ran as Democrats and Republicans; and they participated in contests where they were pitted against men as well as against other women. …