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Judicial Impartiality, Campaign Contributions, and Recusals: Results from a National Survey


  • James L. Gibson,

  • Gregory A. Caldeira

  • The survey on which this article is based was made possible by a grant from TESS: Time-Sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (TESS-730, 2009-2010, “Rescuing Judicial Legitimacy through Recusal? A West Virginia Experiment”), to whom we are much indebted. The experiment reported here was originally fielded in West Virginia with the support of the Law and Social Sciences Program of the National Science Foundation (SES 0915106). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. We also acknowledge with great appreciation the guidance of Chris Bonneau, Michael Nelson, and Bert Kritzer on the data on state judicial selection systems we employ in the article. This article is a revised version of a paper delivered at the Fifth Annual Conference on Empirical Legal Studies, November 5–6, 2010, Yale Law School, and at the Fourth Annual CESS NYU Experimental Political Science Conference, New York University, March 4–5, 2011. We also appreciate the research assistance and comments of Jesse Atencio and Jennifer Carter on this analysis.

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Legal scholars have of late become quite worried about how citizens form their impressions of the fairness of courts. This concern reflects the changing environments of courts, especially elected state courts, and what might generally be termed the politicization of the judiciary. The purpose of this article is to assess the effectiveness of judicial recusals at rehabilitating a court/judge tainted by perceived conflicts of interest associated with campaign activities by litigants. Based on an experimental design embedded in a nationally representative sample, our data first confirm that direct campaign contributions undermine perceptions of fairness; but, unexpectedly, so, too, does independent support for the candidate. Most important, recusal does indeed restore some perceived fairness; unfortunately, the repair to public perceptions is not to the level enjoyed when no conflict of interest exists. In a post-Citizens United world, these findings therefore point to significant threats to the legitimacy of elected state courts.

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