Partisanship, Election Reform and Decision-Making in the North Carolina Supreme Court: A Case Study

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Virginia Tech

In 2002, the North Carolina General Assembly made several changes to the system of popular elections for the state's appellate courts, including the removal of partisan labels from the ballot, starting with the 2004 elections. This particular change presents an opportunity for a natural experiment in which to observe any differences that may have appeared between how the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled before and after the reform, contributing to a line of literature on the impact of institutional arrangements (including selection systems) on judicial decision-making. The thesis examines whether any detectable differences appeared between judicial behavior and the decisional output of the North Carolina Supreme Court in its partisan era (1995-2004) and in its nonpartisan era (2005-2011). Based on analysis of several different characteristics of the Court's decisions and individual justices' votes in these eras, I find no evidence to suggest that the nonpartisan system was associated with justices behaving in more "nonpartisan" ways. If there was any change, it was that during the nonpartisan era, the behavior of the justices was more in line with what would be expected of partisans than it had been in the partisan era. At least in North Carolina, changing the selection method of state supreme court justices from partisan to nonpartisan elections was not followed by less partisan behavior.

Judicial Selection, Nonpartisan Election, Electoral Reform