Author Archives: damoncann

A Conditional Theory of Judicial Accountability

Critics of judicial elections have traditionally argued that such elections are insipid events marked by low levels of participation and low levels of information.  Under such conditions, it is difficult to imagine elections that achieve their stated goal of promoting accountability to the citizenry.

More recently, political scientists have challenged this portrayal of judicial elections, noting changes in levels of competition and styles of campaigning.  Scholars have indicated these changes in campaigning precipitate accountability.  For example, work by Melinda Gann Hall suggests judicial election outcomes are sensitive to state murder rates, with crime being a salient judicial issue, and Paul Brace and Brent Boyea have shown that elected judges’ votes to overturn capital sentences are dependent on state public opinion toward the death penalty.  In both cases, I find their evidence strong and convincing.

Yet, surveys still show that most individuals know relatively little about the workings and decisions of their state courts. How can judicial accountability occur in such a setting?

Teena Wilhelm and I have recently posted a paper on SSRN with a possible resolution to this problem–elected state supreme court judges are indeed accountable under certain circumstances, specifically on cases that are highly visible.  On less visible (but still often important) cases, justices sense a longer electoral leash.  Judges who do not face contestable elections are generally less sensitive to public opinion and more inclined to vote on the basis of their personal ideology.  In this way elected judges seem to behave much like members of Congress, who vote with their constituency on salient issues, but are often swayed by personal or partisan considerations on less visible votes.

Ranking Colleges by Alumni Salaries

Rankings are often interesting and sometimes useful.  The folks at Payscale.com have recently posted their 2009 survey of top U.S. colleges based on either median starting salaries of new graduates or median salaries of graduates who are now mid-career.

The median salaries for some schools are based on relatively small samples of graduates, and individuals are excluded if they went on to grad school (so that Utah State won’t get its salary reputation inflated by our graduate who went on for a Harvard business degree and is now making more than everyone in my department combined; we don’t deserve the credit for that salary).  So take it with a grain of salt.  Certainly, it’s not a perfect measure of everything one wants to know when choosing a college.  But it’s interesting (though for me it has long-since passed the possibility of useful).

Public Support for the Sotomayor Nomination

This morning, CNN released the results of a survey regarding public support for Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court.  About 47% of Americans support confirmation while 40% oppose it (13% had “no opinion”).  To provide context, these results suggest that she is faring better than Harriet Miers did at this point.  The percent supporting confirmation are comparable to Alito’s (and probably within the margin of error for Ginsburg and Thomas at a comparable point in their confirmation processes), but she also has more negative ratings than Alito, Ginsburg, and Thomas had.  Naturally, though, her qualifications (“Well Qualified” ABA rating as noted by Paul Collins noted below) along with 60 Democratic votes in the Senate continue to make this look like a nomination that will end with a successful confirmation.

The Goals of Campaign Finance Law

First of all, many thanks to Jeff and Andy for inviting me to guest blog this summer at Voir Dire. My primary interests are in elections and American government broadly, but the ongoing controversy surrounding judicial elections, along with the encouragement of friends & collaborators, continues to pull me further into the study of judicial politics.

Some of my recent projects have led me to wonder exactly what values one should seek to promote in a campaign finance system. I’m interested in your thoughts, but let me throw out two: preventing corruption and promoting the spread of information.

Corruption is a natural concern with campaign finance. While there are clear examples (think Duke Cunningham and William Jefferson), the evidence for general corruption is limited. A possibility of bias, however, remains (perhaps particularly important given the “probability of bias” standard invoked in the Massey case Chris Bonneau explicated earlier on Voir Dire).

On the other hand, spending money seems to be a necessity for disseminating electoral information to the public. The fast food industry spends about $4 billion each year to make sure we’re well informed about the virtues of burgers and fries; this is about twice the amount spent on the 2008 presidential election. Shouldn’t we know at least as much about candidates for the president as we know about the latest burger or the new McCafe? What’s more, Coleman and Manna (2000) show that higher campaign spending serves to inform voters, enabling them to make better decisions. Hall and Bonneau (2008) show that increased campaign spending leads to higher rates of voter participation in judicial elections that are oftentimes otherwise low-turnout affairs. In this sense, restricting campaign spending may prevent elections from accomplishing their key goal: enabling citizens to make informed decisions between a set of candidates and the policies they are likely to pursue.

As I think about how to balance the two, I’m struck by two things. First, neither value explicitly limits the amount of campaign spending, as long as funds are acquired in a way that limits the possibility of bias. As such, individuals who have expressed discomfort with Obama’s (and previously Bush’s) prolific fundraising, are objecting to the amount of money spent in politics, which is not necessarily problematic in terms of these values (so on what basis might it be problematic?). Second, if one is balancing a possibility of bias against the certainty of the democratic goods that come with campaign, how strong must the possibility of bias be to justify more strict campaign finance regulations?