Courting Constituents: District Elections and Judicial Behavior on the Louisiana Supreme Court

By Cauthen, James N. G.; Peters, C. Scott | Justice System Journal, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Courting Constituents: District Elections and Judicial Behavior on the Louisiana Supreme Court


Cauthen, James N. G., Peters, C. Scott, Justice System Journal


District elections are among the many methods that states may use to select supreme court justices. A state's choice of selection or retention systems reflects its political values: gubernatorial appointment stresses the importance of judicial independence, while elections indicate that judges should be accountable to the public for their decisions. We investigate whether district elections give judges incentive to act as representatives for their districts. Specifically, we hypothesize that state supreme court justices from conservative districts are more likely to vote against criminal defendants in cases from their districts than from other districts. We test this hypothesis on the votes of Louisiana Supreme Court justices in search-and-seizure cases, controlling for justice ideology and the facts of the case. The results support our hypothesis that judges may behave strategically by representing district interests through their votes.

States have many choices in how they select their judges. While the most basic selection methods are gubernatorial appointment and popular election, many variants exist: elections may be partisan or nonpartisan, and appointment may be completely at the governor's discretion or on recommendation from an advisory commission. In addition, states may use one method at the selection stage and another at the retention stage, often requiring appointed judges to be subject to periodic retention elections.

This variety of institutional structures for the selection of state judiciaries implies that the citizens of the various states, with diverse traditions and political cultures, hold differing views on judicial accountability. Notwithstanding the traditional view that courts are insulated from political pressure, states can, through the choice of selection method, affect the level of judicial insulation from politics.

Recent studies suggest the choice of selection system may influence judicial decision making. However, these studies give little attention to the effect of district elections on judicial choice. Although few states elect their supreme court justices from geographic districts, presumably those that do wish to ensure some degree of geographical representation on their courts. In this article, relying on reported decisions of the Louisiana Supreme Court, whose justices are elected from geographic districts, we examine whether this representation is merely symbolic or if these justices, out of obligation to constituents or fear of electoral sanction, decide cases with district interests in mind.

Influences on Judicial Decision Making

Under the traditional legal approach to the study of judicial decision making, judges are viewed as deciding each case before them on the basis of legal precedent and the quality and persuasiveness of arguments made by the parties before the court. However, since the work of Herman Pritchett, who asserted in his study of the United States Supreme Court that "justices are motivated by their own preferences"(1948:xii), political scientists have investigated the effect of a number of factors on judicial decision making beyond traditional legal rules.

For example, following Pritchett, scholars have studied the influence of attitudes on judicial behavior (e.g., Schubert, 1965; Rohde and Spaeth, 1976; Segal and Cover, 1989; Segal and Spaeth, 1993), often using background characteristics as surrogates for policy preferences (e.g., Ulmer, 1962; Hall and Brace, 1992; Tate, 1981). Additionally, numerous researchers seek to explain judicial decision making through institutional attributes of the judiciary. For example, many report higher levels of dissent on state supreme courts in those jurisdictions with intermediate appellate courts (Canon and Jaros, 1970), discretionary dockets (Hall, 1985), and elected rather than appointed judges (Canon and Jaros, 1970; Brace and Hall, 1990). Scholars also have investigated environmental influences on judicial decision making. …

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Courting Constituents: District Elections and Judicial Behavior on the Louisiana Supreme Court
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