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Voter Mobilization in Judicial Retention Elections: Performance Evaluations and Organized Opposition

NCJ Number
Justice System Journal Volume: 22 Issue: 3 Dated: 2001 Pages: 263-285
Susan M. Olson
Date Published
23 pages
This article examines judicial performance evaluations and whether they influence voters in retention elections.
The logic of retention elections is that all judges who perform satisfactorily should be retained, but judges whose performance falls beneath a certain level should be ousted. The rise of judicial performance evaluations is perhaps best seen in the context of increasing expectations for accountability of public officials. Judicial performance evaluation systems usually involve gathering information through surveys or interviews from attorneys, jurors, probation officers, or court observers. A common theory of opposition campaigns in retention elections is that they are sponsored by interest groups concerned about judges’ substantive decisions. The State of Utah changed its judicial selection and retention system in 1985 from nonpartisan contested elections to merit selection and retention elections for all judges on courts of record. A study of three successive trial court elections, in 1996, 1998, and 2000, in Utah presents an opportunity to assess the relative influence of performance evaluations and organized opposition retention election voting. It was concluded that formal judicial performance evaluations were unlikely on their own to lead voters to differentiate greatly among judges in retention elections. Results showed that the association between judges’ evaluation scores and their subsequent positive vote for retention was weak. A small retention margin was more associated with the presence of an organized opposition campaign, which was more likely to occur on the trial bench if a judge offended the sense of procedural justice of litigants with access to resources for political organizing. Such resources may come from an interest group that perceives the litigants’ experiences as within the scope of the group’s concerns. As more States adopt performance evaluations, there may be the opportunity for cross-State comparisons of the effect of different formats and distribution methods on retention results. 1 table, 12 footnotes, 54 references, 2 appendices