When most people think of the courts— or talk about judicial selection—they focus on the federal courts, particularly the U.S. Supreme Court. But while federal courts get the most attention, Americans are far more likely to find themselves before state court judges. Ninety-five percent of all cases are filed in state court, with more than 100 million cases coming before nearly 30,000 state court judges each year. In recent years, state supreme courts have struck down tort reform legislation, ordered state legislatures to equalize funding for public schools, and declared a state’s death penalty unconstitutional.
Because state courts have a profound impact on the country’s legal and policy landscape, choosing state court judges is a consequential decision. And, in recent decades, judicial selection has become increasingly politicized, polarized, and dominated by special interests—particularly but not exclusively in the 39 states that use elections to choose at least some of their judges. Growing evidence suggests that these dynamics impact who is reaching the bench and how judges are deciding cases.
In this Piper-commissioned paper, Alicia Bannon, senior counsel with the Brennan Center Democracy’s Program, tackles how judicial selection works in our country (including a historical reference of its reform) and considerations to further conversations around this issue.
Learning More About Judicial Selection
Despite state courts’ importance, relatively little is known about how judicial selection operates in the states. Accompanying the release of this paper, the Brennan Center is introducing new resources to make it easier to study state courts: