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What effect does political competition have in generating de facto judicial independence? We argue that competition in a legislature can drive increases in de facto judicial independence. Our game-theoretic model reveals that increased competition for seats impedes legislators’ ability to enact their platforms, regardless of government turnover probability, and increased legislative fractionalization also makes court intervention more likely. Utilizing a sample of democratic states, empirical evidence suggests when a country’s legislature is increasingly fractionalized among parties or has increasing seat turnover, we observe increases in de facto independence. This research provides new perspectives on the link between independence and competition.
Do elected judges tailor criminal sentences to the electorate’s ideology? Utilizing sentencing data from North Carolina’s Superior Courts—which transitioned from statewide to local elections in 1996—we study whether judges are obliging to voters’ preferences. We find some evidence of responsiveness: judges from liberal districts were more lenient, while those from moderately conservative districts assigned harsher sentences. Judges from increasingly conservative districts did not change their sentencing patterns, which leads to lower re-election rates. These findings suggest that judges adapt their behavior to retain office, or else they are held accountable by the public.
Legitimacy is a bulwark for courts; even when judges engage in controversial or disagreeable behavior, the public tends to acquiesce. Recent studies identify several threats to the legitimacy of courts, including polarization and attacks by political elites. This article contributes to the scholarly discourse by exploring a previously unconsidered threat: scandal, or allegations of personal misbehavior. We argue that scandals can undermine confidence in judges as virtuous arbiters and erode broad public support for the courts. Using survey experiments, we draw on real-world judicial controversies to evaluate the impact of scandal on specific support for judicial actors and their rulings and diffuse support for the judiciary. We demonstrate that scandals erode individual support but find no evidence that institutional support is diminished. These findings may ease normative concerns that isolated indiscretions by controversial jurists may deplete the vast “reservoir of goodwill” that is foundational to the courts.
What strategies do judges employ when they anticipate review? Constrained judges behave strategically by using particular instruments—like language complexity—when authoring opinions. Prior studies suggest that judges use complexity in anticipation of legislative hostility. Similarly, the threat of review and reversal may spur opinion complexity. This study examines variations in circuit court opinions resulting from precedent treatment and Supreme Court preferences. When a circuit negatively treats a Supreme Court precedent that the justices prefer or a circuit positively treats a precedent that the justices dislike, opinion complexity should increase. These hypotheses find support, suggesting that circuits strategically insulate using opinion complexity.
Good education requires student experiences that deliver lessons about practice as well as theory and that encourage students to work for the public good—especially in the operation of democratic institutions (Dewey 1923; Dewy 1938). We report on an evaluation of the pedagogical value of a research project involving 23 colleges and universities across the country. Faculty trained and supervised students who observed polling places in the 2016 General Election. Our findings indicate that this was a valuable learning experience in both the short and long terms. Students found their experiences to be valuable and reported learning generally and specifically related to course material. Postelection, they also felt more knowledgeable about election science topics, voting behavior, and research methods. Students reported interest in participating in similar research in the future, would recommend other students to do so, and expressed interest in more learning and research about the topics central to their experience. Our results suggest that participants appreciated the importance of elections and their study. Collectively, the participating students are engaged and efficacious—essential qualities of citizens in a democracy.
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