Vol. 26 No. 5 (September 2016) pp. 100-102
JUSTICES ON THE BALLOT: CONTINUITY AND CHANGE IN STATE SUPREME COURT ELECTIONS, by Herbert M. Kritzer. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 297pp. Cloth $99.99. ISBN: 978-1-107-09086-6.
Reviewed by Shane A. Gleason, Department of Political Science, Idaho State University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Herbert Kritzer's latest book, JUSTICES ON THE BALLOT: CONTINUITY AND CHANGE IN STATE SUPREME COURT ELECTIONS, is perhaps the most exhaustive study of state supreme court elections to date. Kritzer's work distinguishes itself by its breadth, both in terms of substantive scope and data. Substantively, it explores a broad range of topics related to state supreme court elections. While such a sweeping approach necessarily keeps the treatment light, it creates an excellent primer for scholars just beginning to study state supreme court elections and a valuable review peppered with new insights for those who have long studied the topic by virtue of the 67 year period which the study and its data encompass. Kritzer thus outlines the contours of state supreme court elections over a broad period of time. Overall, this book represents a valuable contribution to the study of state supreme court elections; but not as an end in and of itself. As a result of painting with a broad brush on a relatively blank canvas with an incredibly detailed and broad dataset, Krtizer's work is properly thought of as a springboard from which to launch future studies on state supreme court elections.
Kritzer begins his study with a broad yet simple research question: what changes have occurred in state supreme court elections in the post-war period? If changes have occurred, Kritzer seeks to explain why changes appear in some states but not others. These questions are addressed in broad domains of state supreme court elections that could easily have been books in their own right. Specifically, he examines election competitiveness, electoral partisanship in both contested and retention elections, and the role of money in judicial elections. Throughout the book, Kritzer stresses there is no single account of how judicial elections play out; they are highly dependent on context. This context involves the way in which justices are selected as well as the accompanying culture and institutional context of the state. Kritzer shows this via both statistical analysis and case studies. This combination is exceptionally effective as it allows him to highlight broad patterns in the data while also discerning where one or two outlying cases might be coloring the results.
The case studies vividly illustrate Kritzer's argument. Importantly, especially if a scholar is considering assigning a chapter or two for an undergraduate class on state politics or judicial behavior, they are exceptionally engaging. While case studies are peppered throughout the book and cover topics as diverse as name recognition and differing campaign finance rules, the best exemplar is Chapter One. This chapter, entitled “A Tale of Two States,” highlights the institutional similarities and judicial election differences between the Minnesota and Wisconsin high courts. These two courts should be similar based on the characteristics of their respective states, yet whereas Minnesota high court elections are relatively non-partisan affairs, Wisconsin’s elections are increasingly characterized by a high level of partisanship. Tracing recent happenings on the court, and the campaign trail to get to the court, Kritzer argues the differences between these two courts can be attributed to the types of cases on each court’s docket. From the late-1990s onward, the Wisconsin Court made a number of highly controversial decisions which spilled over into interactions between the justices. Thus, the Wisconsin court has far more partisan elections than its Minnesota counterpart. After setting the stage with the excellent Minnesota and Wisconsin case study, Kritzer turns to an overview of judicial elections beginning with Vermont's 1777 provisions for electing justices. He then broadly traces high [*101] court selection mechanisms to the present day. This is followed with an exhaustive 60 page overview of the literature on state supreme court elections which he augments with a handful of regression models. These models are discussed briefly in the main text of the chapter, but their specification is relegated to the appendix and the description of variables is short and vague. Not discussing the models and their specification in the main text serves to muddy his overall argument, as the reader is left wondering how exactly Kritzer reaches his conclusions. This aside, these first three chapters provide a comprehensive account of state supreme court elections, both in terms of their history and existing scholarship.
Chapters Four through Seven represent Kritzer’s empirical chapters. They are remarkably data driven. Typically, his chapters open with a brief overview of the topic and then dive into the data. This takes the form of plotting the data and then making small adjustments to tease out specific patterns. For example, Kritzer might plot competitiveness of partisan races and then subsequently break that competitiveness down by region which shows that partisanship is especially increasing in the South. While this creates a relatively tedious read, it does provide a remarkably detailed sketch of the contours of state supreme court elections from the post-war era to the present day. These chapters are not, however, exclusively driven by graphs and tables; they are also sprinkled with the aforementioned case studies which have a dual purpose. In some instances they underscore patterns in the data. In other instances, Kritzer uses case studies to draw attention to outlier cases and explore whether outliers might be driving the results in statistical models. For example, in Chapter Seven Kritzer examines the partisanship of retention elections. He notes Oklahoma’s two courts of last resort have different rates of partisanship. This could be the end of the story; however, the extent to which Kritzer has familiarized himself with his data allows him to use a brief case study to highlight that this discrepancy is due to a particularly partisan 1968 retention election for Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Kirksey Nix. In this way, Kritzer employs case studies to not only provide context, but also to ensure that rogue cases do not drive conclusions. This approach provides a level of nuance, which is not possible relying on just case studies or statistical analysis.
While the balance between case studies and statistical analysis works well, there are some methodological issues with the latter. These issues, which include coding and operationalization, are not fatal flaws. In terms of coding, Kritzer’s chapters on electoral competitiveness treat primary elections in states where the general election is little more than a pro forma affair as equivalent to general elections in states where the general election in competitive. Conflating primary and general elections raises concerns about equivalency. I would have preferred for Kritzer to distinguish between the two in much the same way he differentiates region (discussed above). If anything, this approach might enable him to justify treating those competitive primaries as equivalent to competitive general elections.
The other methodological issue concerns the operationalization of “partisan correlations,” which are constructed by looking to the degree to which a state supreme court election's results follow a straight ticket vote. This is an admittedly crude measure of partisanship, but over such a broad period of time I am at a loss for what could stand in its place. I am confident however, that future scholars building upon the foundation Kritzer has laid will come up with new ways to approach this measure. Albeit, it is possible that when analyzing 67 years of state supreme court elections it is not possible to create a more nuanced measure of partisanship.
The primary contribution of this book is to lay the groundwork for future studies on state supreme court elections. In particular, this is evident with the data. Kritzer’s data is available on the Harvard Dataverse and includes county level partisan breakdowns for all contested state supreme court elections from 1946-2013. Additionally, he collects data on campaign spending from 1990-2012. The data alone, surely a massive undertaking, is a great contribution. When this is paired with sketching the broad outline of the changing partisanship of [*102] state supreme court elections over nearly seventy years, his book becomes an invaluable resource for the growing number of studies on state supreme court elections. Surely, there are areas where this book could be improved; but this project is most properly thought of as providing a detailed sketch of state supreme court elections which serves as a starting point for future scholars.
© Copyright 2016 by author, Shane A. Gleason