Political Knowledge of Local Courts

Article excerpt


A case study of public knowledge regarding local judges and elections. Controlling for the usual factors that drive political knowledge, the study finds that geography is also an important factor.

As election tides moved against Republican candidates in the 2006 midterm elections across the country, a curious thing happened in the judicial elections in Dallas County, Texas. Long-entrenched Republican state district court judges were turned out of office en masse and replaced with Democratic judges. Two years later, a Democratic president carried Harris County (metropolitan Houston) for the first time since 1964, and Barack Obama's coattails extended all the way down to judicial races throughout the county. Nearly every Republican incumbent was tossed out of office by the voters. The only incumbent Republicans for state district court who won re-election in Houston faced Democratic candidates with unusual or foreign-sounding names.1 In San Antonio, 45 Democratic trial lawyers took out a half-page ad to try to save a few Republican judges they respected on the bench, but two Republicans lost and one only won by a few hundred votes.2 In four of the five largest counties in Texas in 2008, the average vote for local judicial office closely tracked the presidential vote.3 In the 2010 elections, the pendulum swung back the other way, as Republican district court candidates swept all offices in Harris County, seemingly riding on the coattails of Republican performances in congressional races.

The 2008 election results prompted complaints from media pundits and court watchers about the effects of partisan judicial elections and straight-ticket voting on judicial races. The San Antonio Express News ran a story entitled "Our wrongheaded judicial elections demand rethinking," quoting a state senator as saying that the problem was "voters not knowing the names of their judges."4 The Houston Chronicle ran a story entitled "Sweep revives debate on election of judges."5 Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips and the sitting Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson used the occasion to criticize partisan elections. Chief Justice Jefferson issued a statement saying, "It has become clear that in judicial elections, the public (particularly in urban areas) cannot cast informed votes due to the sheer number of candidates on the ballot."6

Though Chief Justice Jefferson blamed the election results on Texas's partisan selection system, his statement raised, perhaps unwittingly, a more fundamental problem involving voter knowledge and judicial election structures - a problem that could still persist even if the state were to adopt a merit selection system with retention elections. The question raised by the Chief Justice, and the primary question of this study, is whether urban voters face disadvantages in their knowledge about their local judgeships. How much do Texas voters know about their local judges? Moreover, what explains why some voters know more about their local judges than others? Certainly, the aggregate election results for judicial races in these large counties suggest that campaign specific information - such as the characteristics of the individual candidates, the past performance of sitting judges running for reelection, or even the typical effects of incumbency - had little bearing on electoral outcomes. To investigate questions of voter knowledge on local judges, this study draws on a random sample of registered voters in Texas during the 2008 primary elections. Using Texas as a case study offers an excellent opportunity to investigate these questions, as we detail later on in the paper.

Scant amounts of research have been devoted to gauging levels of public knowledge of local courts. We also know little about the factors that help explain citizen knowledge of local courts and judges. Yet, research in this area is important for a number of reasons. …