Judicial elections are literally killing people

Here’s yet another reason why judicial elections are terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad ideas.

A new paper from the Brennan Center for Justice shows that re-election campaigns — both their proximity and intensity — affect judges’ decisions in court. The more ads that run, the higher conviction rates get. The closer Election Day becomes, the longer sentences get. Judges subject to elections were roughly half as likely to overturn death sentences as judges that were not under electoral constraints.

Court via Shutterstock

Court via Shutterstock

In Alabama, trial judges were even more likely to overrule jury decisions in order to impose the death penalty as Election Day drew near. As of 2013, judges in the state have overruled juries to impose the death penalty 95 times, per the report.

As the paper notes, 87 percent of state judges (across 39 states) are elected, and state courts decide 98 percent of criminal cases. This means that judicial elections are making our criminal justice system harsher than it otherwise would be for a solid majority of our criminal defendants. Furthermore, they indirectly contribute to the deaths of defendants who, if justice were truly blind, would have been taken off death row (or not been put on in the first place).

As John Oliver has already pointed out, politics and justice don’t mix well (note the cameo from the Brennan Center’s Alicia Bannon):

There are a ton of problems with judicial elections. Correct rulings in appeals proceedings can easily turn into scary-as-hell attack ads. Fundraising pressure creates the incentive for out-and-out corruption — a principle the Supreme Court has recognized for judicial elections but has somehow missed for legislative and presidential races. And perhaps most significantly, they have measurable effects on the decisions made in court. They don’t blind justice; they fog justice’s windshield.

Every candidate for judgeship will tell the voters that they will rule fairly, but the data show that no candidate can be expected to live up to that promise. Voters want judges (and representatives) who are “tough” (as opposed to “soft”) on crime, which will inevitably set incentives for judges to issue “tougher” rulings. It’s unfair, but it’s representative.

Which is why there are some things we shouldn’t be putting up for votes.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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