Politically Insulated Judges Are Better Judges

One of my hobbyhorses is the idea that America should have fewer elected officials. Voting is a valuable check on poor job performance by public officials if and only if the voting public has some realistic prospect of monitoring them. Most Americans are asked to vote in far more elections than they’re realistically going to pay attention to. Perhaps the most scandalous aspect of our over-enthusiasm for elections is the insane practice of electing judges, which is very widespread at the state level.

Matias Iaryczower, Garrett Lewis and Matthew Shum from the CalTech Division of Humanities and Social Sciences offer some useful perspective in this paper (PDF):


In this paper, we address empirically the trade-offs involved in choosing between bureaucrats and politicians. In order to do this, we need to map institutions of selection and retention of public officials to the type of public officials they induce. We do this by specifying a collective decision-making model, and exploiting its equilibrium information to obtain estimates of the unobservable types. We focus on criminal decisions across US states’ Supreme Courts. We find that justices that are shielded from voters’ influence on average (i) have better information, (ii) are more likely to change their preconceived opinions about a case, and (iii) are more effective (make less mistakes) than their elected counterparts. We evaluate how performance would change if the courts replaced majority rule with unanimity rule.

This is all to say nothing of how the increasing importance of fundraising and campaign contributions in judicial politics makes a mockery of the justice system.