The Effects of Judicial Campaign Activity on the Legitimacy of Courts: A Survey-Based Experiment

By Gibson, James L.; Gottfried, Jeffrey A. et al. | Political Research Quarterly, September 2011 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Effects of Judicial Campaign Activity on the Legitimacy of Courts: A Survey-Based Experiment

Gibson, James L., Gottfried, Jeffrey A., Carpini, Michael X. Delli, Jamieson, Kathleen Hall, Political Research Quarterly


The purpose of this article is to investigate the consequences of judicial campaign activity for the perceived legitimacy of the Pennsylvania judiciary. The authors find that politicized campaign ads do detract from court support, although they find practically no difference between traditional campaign ads (e.g., presenting endorsements from groups) and strong attack ads. But this finding must be understood within the context of the 2007 Pennsylvania election increasing court support for all respondents, even those exposed to the most politicized ad content. Being exposed to politicized ads seems to retard the benefits of elections but does not eliminate them.


judicial elections, campaigning, politicized campaigns, attack ads, judicial legitimacy

Campaigning for state judgeships in America has entered a new era. In the past, campaigns might have been described as decent, docile, and dirt cheap, even if drab and dull. Today, they are said to be "nosier, nastier, and costlier" (Schotland 2001). Whatever the characterization, there can be little doubt that the landscape of judicial elections has changed rather dramatically in the past decade in the United States.

As a consequence of this "new style" of politicized judicial election, court observers are concerned that the legitimacy of the judiciary-or at least its perceived impartiality-may be compromised. For instance, one legal scholar opines:

When judicial decisions are seen as politicized rather than independent, or as done in the service of a special interest group or to advance judges' self-interest rather than in a neutral and independent spirit, the sense of fairness and justice that is the binding force of the Rule of Law becomes exhausted and the system is weakened. Disobedience and avoidance of legal obligations can be expected to rise in direct proportion to declining respect for law. As respect for the fairness of law diminishes, greater government force must be used to ensure obedience. (Barnhizer 2001, 371, footnotes omitted)

In fact, however, we know little about the effect of campaign activity on citizens' perceptions of judicial institutions. The assumption seems to be that campaign activities of many sorts threaten institutional legitimacy, but the evidence that exists-fragmentary as it is-calls this conclusion into question. Even the well-established literature on campaign effects within ordinary political institutions is uninformative on this issue since that research rarely considers the repercussions of campaigning on fundamental attitudes toward and support for political and legal institutions.1 At this point, we simply do not know what consequences flow from the more politicized style of judicial campaigning that seems to be sweeping across the nation these days.

Consequently, the purpose of this article is to investigate the effects of campaign activity on the support Pennsylvanians extend to their state Supreme Court. Based on a survey conducted in 2007, with interviews before, during, and after the election on November 6, 2007, we employ an experimental design to test the general hypothesis that politicized judicial campaigns undermine support for the judiciary. Because this research relies on a Web-based survey, the campaign material the respondents viewed is extremely realistic (and real since we used actual ads and campaign material broadcast in judicial races). Moreover, because Pennsylvania has recently been the object of intense and salient political controversy over its judiciary (Goodman and Marks 2006), the 2007 campaign provided an exemplar of how judicial campaigns have become "nastier" and "noisier." Our findings indicate that the effects of judicial campaign activity may be more complicated-and less deleterious-than many assume. Most important, our data suggest that even if politicized ad campaigns subtract from judicial legitimacy, that negative effect is overwhelmed by the positive boost in institutional legitimacy courts receive from elections.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Effects of Judicial Campaign Activity on the Legitimacy of Courts: A Survey-Based Experiment


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?