Madison - St. Clair Record

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Study indicates state judges show partisanship; pressures go away during last term of office, report says

By Dawn Geske | Jul 20, 2016

WASHINGTON  – A group of independent researchers have published a study that looks at the relationship between state judges and partisan decisions and concluded that judges are systematically biased.

The researchers at Emory Law School published their findings in study called Partisan Justice, which examines the pressures states judges undergo from fundraising to aggressive politics and how these pressures influence their judgement to align with their party when making decisions.

“The only judge most people are ever going to see is a state court judge,” David Lyle, director of State Court Projects at the American Constitution Society told the Record. “The federal courts handle very few cases. The Supreme Court handles only 80 cases a year, whereas the state courts handle 90 percent of the nation’s judicial business. That’s about 90 million cases a year and that deals with everything that we might consider small matters, but they can have a huge impact on a person’s life.”

The study looked at data over a 10-year period, coming to the conclusion that state judges are systematically biased because of the pressures put on them by a need to generate campaign finances, re-election influences and the need to favor their party’s interest.

The study found evidence that partisanship occurs in state judges' decisions, beyond election cases. Whether this influence occurs consciously or unconsciously, the study says judges are also likely to make biased decisions in favor of their party in other cases.

“Almost all state court judges are under some kind of political scrutiny and political review,” Lyle said. “Partisan politics and campaign money have come in to the political system through which judges are selected and to keep their job. That puts political pressure on judges and really what it comes down to is there’s enormous pressure on judges to be part of a political team.

"They have to have the support of a party to keep their jobs. In many cases they have to raise a lot of money to keep their jobs. You can’t really do that successfully if you’re going to be this independent figure that is constantly bucking the party. You’re under a lot of pressure to be a part of the team.”

Although the study indicating that judges typically favor litigants from their own party, it is partisan bias that can be bad for the people that use the legal system.

“A system where judges are under partisan pressure is bad for people,” Lyle said. “Fair and impartial courts are an indispensable part of American democracy. If the courts lose their impartiality it really damages our democracy."

Although these pressures can affect a judge’s decisions, the study does indicate these pressures disappear during a state judges' last term in office as they are no longer required to raise money, campaign, run for election or remain loyal to their party.

“In the last term, all of those incentives and pressures go away,” Lyle said. “For that last term the judge is set. He or she has the job. No one’s going to take it away from them. They don’t have to worry about raising money anymore. They don’t have to worry about being part of a political coalition that has to turnout voters on Election Day. They can just take a deep breath and relax and do their job.

“Our goal should be to create a system where judges can do that throughout their career, rather than only at the very end of their career.”

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