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Judicial Selection and Death Penalty Decisions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 January 2014

Princeton University
Emory University
Virginia Tech
Brandice Canes-Wrone is Donald E. Stokes Professor of Public and International Affairs and Professor of Politics, Princeton University, 34 Corwin Hall, Princeton, NJ 08544 (
Tom S. Clark is Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Political Science, Emory University, 1555 Dickey Drive, Emory University; Atlanta, GA 30322 (
Jason P. Kelly is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Virginia Tech, Major Williams Hall, Room 517, Virginia Tech; 220 Stanger St; Blacksburg, VA 24061 (


Most U.S. state supreme court justices face elections or reappointment by elected officials, and research suggests that judicial campaigns have come to resemble those for other offices. We develop predictions on how selection systems should affect judicial decisions and test these predictions on an extensive dataset of death penalty decisions by state courts of last resort. Specifically, the data include over 12,000 decisions on over 2000 capital punishment cases decided between 1980 and 2006 in systems with partisan, nonpartisan, or retention elections or with reappointment. As predicted, the findings suggest that judges face the greatest pressure to uphold capital sentences in systems with nonpartisan ballots. Also as predicted, judges respond similarly to public opinion in systems with partisan elections or reappointment. Finally, the results indicate that the plebiscitary influences on judicial behavior emerge only after interest groups began achieving success at targeting justices for their decisions.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2014 

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