The Performance of Elected Officials: Evidence from State Supreme Courts

Elliott Ash (Princeton University)
W. Bentley MacLeod (Columbia University)

Abstract: This paper exploits the variation in how U.S. state supreme court judges are appointed and retained to measure the effect of these changes upon performance using a panel of all judicial opinions written between 1947 and 1994. We find evidence of both incentive and selection effects due to electoral procedures. Election-year politics reduces the output of judges in non-partisan elections, but not in partisan elections or uncontested elections. Moving from non-partisan elections to uncontested elections causes incumbent judges to improve work quality, while moving from partisan to uncontested elections has no effect on this choice. Judges selected by technocratic merit commissions produce higher-quality work than either partisan-elected judges or non-partisan-elected judges. These results are consistent with the view that technocratic merit commissions have better information about judge quality than voters, and that political bias can reduce the quality of officials selected.