How Elections Influence Judges Social science research looks at the relationship between how judges rule and how they are influenced by election campaigns.

How Elections Influence Judges

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We keep getting reminders that your politics affect your perception of the world. Your political views may influence which media you believe or don't. And in these tense times, finding out how your neighbor voted may well change your perception of your neighbor. New research examines how politics can affect even supposedly nonpartisan institutions like the federal judiciary. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam sat down with our co-host David Greene.



GREENE: So I thought judges were above politics. Are you going to tell me that's not the case?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) I don't think judges are above politics, David, but it's more than just simply having political views. Research by scholars at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and the Toulouse School of Economics in France suggest judges in U.S. circuit courts appear to be affected by the rhetoric of political campaigns. Now, judges are nominated by presidents, so they're often seen as being liberal or conservative. But in a new analysis of 18,686 rulings over 77 years, Carlos Berdejo and Daniel Chen find that judges appointed by both Republican and Democratic presidents become sharply more partisan right before a presidential election. Chen says that judicial rulings, especially as expressed by dissents, become twice as partisan as the election approaches before falling back to normal levels.

DANIEL CHEN: Well, we know that during election season the environment becomes very partisan. Democrats tend to vote in a more liberal manner, and Republicans vote more in a conservative manner. This correlation increases before the election.

GREENE: OK, so he's saying that right before an election, you might have, say, a three-judge panel with two Republicans, one Democrat. You're more likely to see the Democrat dissenting from his or her colleagues right around election time.

VEDANTAM: That's right. So judges are selected from a pool to hear each case. Right before the election, Democrats and Republicans become more likely to disagree with one another and more likely to march in lockstep with fellow Democrats and fellow Republicans. Berdejo and Chen also find that during periods of war when the country tends to pull together politically, judicial partisan disagreement expressed via both rulings and dissent decreases. So even though judges think of themselves as neutral and unbiased, they're sensitive to the political discourses that are swirling around them.

GREENE: And the connection here is really clear. It is tied to that discourse. I mean, these are judges who are actually getting caught up in the emotional swings of a campaign or a war, as you say.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. So that certainly is one possibility, but it could also be more subtle than that, David. Chen told me that elections are a way to get us to think about certain subjects. They bring certain ideas to the top of our minds, and that can shape how we then think and behave in other situations.

CHEN: A lot of the campaign ads before the election are about economic issues, you know, about taxation, for example. And maybe you start to think more about equity versus efficiency. And when an economic case comes up in front of you, maybe some of these concepts are subconsciously influencing how the judge is deciding.

VEDANTAM: So, you know, David, maybe it's conscious or maybe it's unconscious, but judges like the rest of us are human. They're shaped by what they see and hear.

GREENE: All right, interesting stuff as always. Thanks, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.

GREENE: Shankar Vedantam joins us regularly on the show to talk about social science research, and he's also the host of the podcast Hidden Brain.


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