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Selection of State Supreme Court Judges

How State Court Judges are Selected

State Supreme Courts, known in some states as Courts of Appeals, are highest courts within an individual state and play an important role in the judicial system. Many cases decided by the Supreme Court of the United States have passed through the State Supreme Court during their lifespan. As such, the decisions rendered and the opinions written by the justices on the State Supreme Court are often very influential in shaping national jurisprudence. These justices face different methods of appointment in different states.


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Twenty-three states hold popular elections for judges. Seven of these states employ partisan elections, in which a judge's political affiliation is likely listed directly on the ballot. Since voters are often not abreast of the detailed stances of the judges up for election, these party identifications provide a common denominator many voters can easily understand and subsequently align with. In contrast, non-partisan elections are the method of appointment in 16 other states. While the judges certainly maintain political views, their party affiliation is not printed on the ballot. Many legal theorists believe that the Court should be divorced from politics and that aligning judges with parties is a dangerous confluence of the two. Five states select their judges through elections held by the state legislature, which is arguably closer to the next method of selection than to popular election.

This other method is selection by appointment. Eight states select judges based on an appointment by the Governor. Of course, the Governor’s decision is reviewed; in some states by the state legislature and in others by a special committee. Though it would seem that the Governor has a great deal of power in this situation, the state legislature often advises the Governor, formally or informally, on who he or she ought to select.

Still, not all the states are accounted for. The remaining 14 states use somewhat of a hybrid method known as the Missouri Plan, or merit plan. Under this system, commissions of lawyers nominate a number of, often three, candidates when a vacancy arises. The governor then selects one of these candidates. This judge is then subject to a special type of popular election in which he runs unopposed, called a retention election. Some question how much value an election with one candidate has, but others value the retention election as a valuable referendum on the judge in question. States may modify the Missouri Plan slightly, but this is the general pattern in place.

The method of selection for State Supreme Court judges is a common subject of academic debate. There is a long standing and contentious debate among legal scholars as to which method produces the most efficient judges least prone to corruption. Critics of the appointee system suggest that judges must promise governors or committees certain things to gain their seat. Critics of the election system do not believe judges ought to be campaigning or bringing politics to the bench.

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