Accountability and Judicial Performance: Evidence from Case Dispositions

By Goelzhauser, Greg | Justice System Journal, September 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Accountability and Judicial Performance: Evidence from Case Dispositions


Goelzhauser, Greg, Justice System Journal


Does accountability affect judicial performance? Unraveling the link between accountability and performance is difficult when it comes to courts, in part because the norm against political interference with the judiciary makes it difficult to experiment with measures designed to increase accountability. In this article, I examine the connection between accountability and judicial performance using court delay data from Kansas, where seventeen judicial districts use noncompetitive retention elections while fourteen employ partisan elections. The results suggest that courts with judges who enjoy less independence dispose certain types of cases more quickly. The findings have implications for our understanding of judicial independence, judicial elections, court delay, and trial court decision making.

Does accountability affect judicial performance? Unraveling the link between accountability and performance is central to developing our understanding of relationships within a hierarchy. The link has been thoroughly explored in a number of settings, including the theory of the firm (Miller, 1992), bureaucratic politics (Brehm and Gates, 1999), and international organizations (Hawkins et al., 2006). Yet we know little about the connection between accountability and performance when it comes to courts. One reason for this is that maintaining an independent judiciary requires sacrificing some degree of accountability. The norm against political interference with the judiciary makes it difficult to experiment with measures designed to increase judicial accountability. Moreover, difficulties measuring judicial performance complicate the task of exploring the link between accountability and judicial performance empirically.

In this article, I contribute to the open question of whether accountability affects judicial performance by examining whether variation in the level of judicial independence afforded to state trial judges is associated with case disposition times. The theoretical argument builds on the notion that judges who face competitive elections have an incentive to produce a work product that helps ensure reelection. To capture differences in judicial independence, I exploit a quasi-natural experiment in Kansas, where seventeen judicial districts use noncompetitive retention elections while fourteen employ partisan elections (see also Crynes, 1995; Gordon and Huber, 2007). The results suggest that courts with judges who enjoy less independence dispose certain types of cases more quickly.

Although the electoral connection between state judges and voters is well established (e.g., Brace and Boyea, 2008; Heiland and Tabarrok, 2002; Shepherd, 2009), most of this research focuses on case outcomes rather than performance in the areas of judicial process and administration. Moreover, this research focuses almost exclusively on state supreme courts. This project contributes to the literature on the effects of judicial elections while also informing our understanding of trial court decision making. The results also speak directly to the literature on accountability and judicial performance (Cann, 2007; Choi, Gulati, and Posner, 2010) and enhance our understanding of court delay.

MEASURING JUDICIAL PERFORMANCE

Judicial performance is a difficult to concept to measure. One approach, which has become popular with state judicial commissions, is to conceptualize performance as a combination of characteristics such as legal ability, integrity, communication skills, judicial temperament, attentiveness, and prompt case dispositions.1 Judicial commissions then measure performance by asking members of the legal community to rate judges across the relevant criteria. Unfortunately, these surveys are typically only conducted in states where judges face retention elections. This lack of institutional variation makes it difficult to use these data to examine the link between performance and accountability.

Scholars have also developed ways to measure judicial performance using survey data.

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