Arts, Humanities and Social Science

Succession, Opportunism, and Rebellion on State Supreme Courts: Decisions to Run for Chief Justice
Richard L. Vining, Jr; Teena Wilhelm; Emily Wanless

We examine decisions to seek promotion on state courts of last resort, focusing on the conditions when an associate justice will run for the position of chief justice. We analyze data including all chief justice elections from 1970 to 2004 in the states that elect this position. We construct taxonomy of associate justices who seek the chief justice position, then use regression analysis and post estimation techniques to better understand these choices. Our findings indicate that judicial actors who seek promotion via the ballot box are strategic and motivated by ideological preferences rather than institutional features or raw ambition. In 2006, a statewide election was held to select the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. The candidates included the Republican incumbent Drayton Nabers, Jr., Democrat Sue Bell Cobb, and Republican Associate Justice Tom Parker, who achieved notoriety as the spokesman and legal advisor for former chief justice Roy Moore.1 Parker was outspoken about changes he wished to make on the Alabama Supreme Court. Specifically, he hoped to “lead in defending the U.S. Constitution” by advocating that the court ignore liberal decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court (White 2006). Parker also touted his desire to change the leadership of the court, and the election led the court’s justices to choose “sides.”2Nabers defeated Parker in the Republican primary but lost the seat to Cobb in November. The overtly political nature of Parker’s candidacy prompts an interesting question: when and why do judges seek promotion? Prior research suggests that politicians presented with optimal circumstances will run for higher office (Rohde 1979). However, judges’ decisions regarding higher office may be tempered by the institutional design and less overtly political nature of the judicial branch. This question is interesting given the emergence of “new style” judicial elections similar to conventional electoral politics (Bonneau 2005; Schotland 1985). In order to examine this phenomenon we analyze the behavior of elite judicial officers at the state level. Seven states (Alabama, Arkansas, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas)hold statewide elections for the office of chief justice.

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