Judicial Selection in the States
States have a variety of procedures for filling high court judgeships. While each state is free to determine its own selection method, most states use one of two systems: direct judicial elections by the people or judicial appointment from a list of candidates developed by a judicial nominating commission.
• Twenty-five states choose their high court judges by the appointment process known as merit selection.
• South Carolina and Virginia are the only two states where the legislature appoints judges.
• In three states, California, Maine and New Jersey, the governor has sole discretion in naming judicial appointees.
• Eight states have partisan elections and 13 states have nonpartisan elections.
• Seventeen states have uncontested retention elections after initial appointment, and 12 states grant life tenure or use reappointment.
The selection process for state Supreme Court justices has been the focus of increasingly intense debate throughout the U.S. in recent years.
• Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has made the issue her priority since leaving the bench in 2006; she argues that raising campaign funds and promising specific performance on the bench run counter to the practice of judging. She favors merit selection or an appointment system.
• Nevada voters will consider a proposal in November 2010 to allow the governor to appoint judges.
• A commission established by West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, 2009 President of The Council of State Governments, is considering judicial selection reform after a coal company executive spent $3 million to help elect a state Supreme Court justice. That situation was spotlighted in the U.S. Supreme Court case Caperton v. Massey, which drew national attention.
• Former Ohio Chief Justice Thomas Moyer championed efforts to change Ohio’s laws to allow the governor and a review panel to select Supreme Court justices.
• A bill introduced in Minnesota in 2009, Senate File 0070, would let voters change the state’s constitution to allow the governor to appoint judges to eight-year terms.
• An initiative petition effort in Missouri seeks to scrap the current system of merit selection of judges and revert to partisan elections. Missouri’s current system has been the model for 34 other states that use merit selection to fill some or all judicial vacancies.
States are also seeking to curb the influence of special interests on judicial contests.
• Judicial candidates for high courts raised $206.4 million for campaigns from 2000 to 2009, up from $83.3 million the previous decade.
• Illinois, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin recently enacted judicial campaign finance reform through legislation imposing limits on judicial campaign contributions or creating a public financing system for judicial elections.
Download the Table: "Method of Judicial Selection"