Woodward v. Alabama: The Deadly Problem of Judicial Elections

On rare occasions, the Supreme Court will publish a dissent on a denial for a writ of certiorari; of those, a few appropriately catch the attention of more than just the most ardent Court watcher. Such a dissent was recently published by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor in Woodward v. Alabama.

In 2008, Mario Dion Woodward was convicted of capital murder for the fatal shooting of a Montgomery police officer two years earlier. By a vote of eight to four, the jury recommended a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole because it determined that the aggravating circumstances failed to outweigh the mitigating circumstances, including Mr. Woodward's traumatic and abusive childhood. However, the trial judge overrode the determination of the jury and sentenced Mr. Woodward to death.

While judicial overrides are not unique to Alabama, the state's record is particularly notorious. A 2011 study from the Montgomery based Equal Justice Initiative identified Alabama as "the only state in the country where judges can override jury life verdicts without meeting a strict standard." As Justice Sotomayor's dissent noted, "[s]ince 2000 ... there have been only 27 life-to-death overrides, 26 of which were by Alabama judges." In attempting to explain why Alabama had become the only state in which judges routinely override the decisions of juries in order to impose capital punishment, she surmised that, "[t]he only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures." Justice Sotomayor pointed to specific examples in which judges cited their capital punishment record in campaign advertisements and one instance where a judge stated that voter reaction "'ha[s] some impact, especially in high-profile cases ... Let's face it ... we're human beings. I'm sure it affects some more than others.'"

A study released last month by the Center for American Progress (CAP) provides further support for the evidence that Justice Sotomayor marshals in her dissent. Examining supreme courts in a handful of states, the study found that "[a]s campaign cash increased, the courts studied began to rule more often in favor of prosecutors and against criminal defendants." Indeed, the connection is stark: "[w]hen the influx of campaign cash into state supreme court campaigns increased, so did rulings that sided with the prosecution in criminal cases. When campaign spending plummeted in Washington and Georgia, the rulings in favor of the state dropped as well." These connections are problematic in and of themselves, but are even more troubling in the context of record campaign spending in recent judicial elections. As the CAP study notes, "[s]tate supreme court candidates raised more than $200 million between 2000 and 2009 -- two and a half times more than in the 1990s."

But the impact of money in state court elections is not limited to criminal cases. Studies show that -- consciously or unconsciously -- judges tend to rule in favor of the interests of their contributors. For instance, the more campaign contributions from business interests judges receive, the more likely they are to vote for business litigants appearing before them in business cases. Indeed, the independent empirical researchers behind Justice at Risk, a 50-state statistical study of the effect of campaign contributions on state court judges' decisions sponsored by the American Constitution Society, found that a judge who receives half of his or her contributions from business groups would be expected to vote in favor of business interests almost two-thirds of the time. Especially troubling for those of us who care about progressive priorities, the report found that business contributions did more to sway the decisions of Democratic judges than Republicans.

There has long been a belief that judicial elections influence the fair administration of justice. Thanks to a surge of new scholarship, we now have evidence to back up our hunches and bring to bear on reforms. While the Supreme Court has not acted to save Mario Dion Woodward, his case gives all of us reason to consider the critical role of state courts in criminal and civil matters alike, and to think hard about what changes we must make in order to ensure they operate fairly and impartially, without bias or influence.