STUDIES: Elected High Court Judges Half as Likely as Appointed Judges to Overturn Death Sentences

A Reuters analysis of more than 2,000 state Supreme Court rulings in capital cases has found that elected judges are much less likely to overturn death sentences than judges who are appointed. In the 15 states in which the state Supreme Court is directly elected, justices overturned death sentences only 11% of the time as compared to a 26% reversal rate in the 7 states in which justices are appointed. 15 states have a hybrid system, where justices are initially appointed, but must then face election to remain on the bench; those states fell in the middle, with a 15% reversal rate. Tennessee Justice Gary Wade, who ran television ads during his re-election campaign touting the court's 90% rate of affirming death sentences, told Reuters, "Those who were employed to run the campaign believed that it was important for this court to have a demonstrated record, or willingness, to impose the death penalty." An Ohio defendant, Ashford Thompson, is arguing that politics played a role in the Ohio Supreme Court's 4-3 decision to uphold his death sentence in a decision rendered less than a week before two of the majority justices faced re-election. The justice who wrote that opinion was the beneficiary of a $600,000 advertising campaign that featured television ads praising her previous votes to uphold death sentences. Dissenting Justice William O'Neill wrote, "The majority’s failure to seriously engage in the weighing process provides yet another reason why, in my opinion, Ohio’s system of imposing and reviewing death sentences is unconstitutional."

(D. Levine and K. Cooke, "In states with elected high court judges, a harder line on capital punishment," Reuters, September 22, 2015. Graphic by Reuters.) See Studies.