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Choosing State Court Judges

State supreme court elections are increasingly expensive and politicized. We urge states to reform how they choose their high court judges and adopt a transparent, publicly accountable appointment process and a lengthy single term.

Overview

State supreme courts play a power­ful role in Amer­ican life. Ninety-five percent of all cases are filed in state courts, and state supreme courts are gener­ally the final word on state law. In recent years, state supreme courts have struck down restrict­ive abor­tion laws, redrawn gerry­mandered congres­sional maps, and ordered hundreds of millions of dollars in addi­tional fund­ing for educa­tion — all as matters of state law. 

Over the past few decades, the selec­tion of state supreme court justices has become increas­ingly politi­cized, partic­u­larly in the 38 states that use elec­tions, where million-dollar races have become the norm. A judge’s job is to apply the law fairly and protect our rights, even when doing so is unpop­u­lar or angers the wealthy and power­ful. But the real­ity of compet­ing in costly, highly politi­cized elec­tions is at odds with this role. Left unchecked, these trends can under­mine the integ­rity of state supreme courts and the public trust that under­girds their legit­im­acy. 

The Bren­nan Center urges states to elim­in­ate elec­tions for supreme court justices and to instead adopt a publicly account­able appoint­ment process conduc­ted by an inde­pend­ent nomin­at­ing commis­sion. We also urge all states, regard­less of whether they use elec­tions or appoint­ments, to adopt a “one and done” lengthy single term for their justices, so that justices can decide cases without worry­ing that follow­ing the law could cost them their job. 

These propos­als are the result of a multi-year project taking a fresh look at state judi­cial selec­tion. We focused on state supreme courts, where the rise of politi­cized elec­tions has been most pronounced. We stud­ied how each state selects its justices, spoke to dozens of experts and stake­hold­ers, reviewed the extens­ive legal and social science liter­at­ure on judi­cial selec­tion, and considered reform propos­als from bar asso­ci­ations, legis­latures, and schol­ars.

Our Experts