The Effects of Campaign Spending in State Supreme Court Elections

Article excerpt

Electoral competition has been an important subject of political science research over the past several decades. This article examines the effects of campaign spending on electoral competition in state supreme court elections. Specifically, the author addresses the question, How do campaign expenditures affect the performance of incumbents in supreme court elections? The author finds that, just like elections to Congress and state legislatures, electoral competition in state supreme court elections can be understood by looking at characteristics of the candidates, the state and electoral context, and institutional arrangements.

Keywords: state supreme courts; judicial selection; campaign finance; judicial elections

Electoral competition has been an important subject of political science research over the past several decades. Through these studies, we have learned much about the determinants of electoral competition in a variety of settings: the U.S. Congress (e.g., Banks and Kiewiet 1989; Green and Krasno 1988, 1990; Jacobson 1978, 1980, 1985, 1989, 1990; Squire 1995), state legislatures (e.g., Cassie and Breaux 1998; Gierzynski and Breaux 1991; Giles and Pritchard 1985), and executives (e.g., Atkeson and Partin 1995; Bardwell 2002; Carsey and Wright 1998; Partin 2002; Svoboda 1995). In sum, these studies have concluded that electoral competition is determined by factors related to the candidates, issues, and the political context.

It is important to study and understand electoral competition because its presence (or absence) serves as a constraint (or lack thereof) on electoral actors. This is true even for seemingly "safe" electoral actors (i.e., elected officials who have little reason to fear electoral defeat). "Even 'safe' representatives who face challengers live with some fear that they may be defeated, and this wariness may constrain their actions" (Squire 1989, 282). Since behavior may be affected by electoral competition, understanding the nature of electoral competition becomes of paramount importance to our understanding of American political institutions composed of elected officials. This is true even for officials who run in seemingly low-information, low-salience elections, like judges (e.g., Hall 1995).

With few exceptions (Hall 2001; Hall and Bonneau 2006), electoral competition in judicial elections has escaped systematic inquiry by political scientists. This is an important subject of inquiry, because as anyone living in a state in which judges are elected can attest, whether or not judges should be elected is an ongoing, and often acrimonious, subject of debate. On one side of the argument, there are those (both scholars and court observers) who argue that judges should not be forced to stand for election because allowing them to raise campaign funds creates an appearance of impropriety (e.g., Schotland 1985; Geyh 2003). On the other side of the debate are those who argue that judges are public officials and should be held accountable for their decisions by the public (e.g., Dimino 2004, 2005). Additionally, the electorate also seems to be squarely on the side of accountability. Despite concerns about the propriety of judges needing to raise money from contributors who may appear before them, voters support electing judges and have been reticent to eliminate judicial elections (e.g., Champagne and Haydel 1993; Geyh 2003; Dimino 2005).

Of particular concern to those who oppose judicial elections is the amount of money that is being spent on these campaigns. According to several accounts, judicial elections are involving increasing amounts of money (e.g., Bonneau 2004), and the outcomes of these races may be dictated by factors such as who spent the most money or political party affiliation (e.g., Champagne 2003; Phillips 2003; Geyh 2003; Hanssen 2004). Thus, these critics argue, not only do judicial elections have a potentially corrupting influence, but they are also institutional failures: if the outcomes of judicial elections are the product of outside factors like money or party identification, then the public is less able to hold judges accountable for their decisions. …