Parsing Out Justice

Graduate student Claire Lim explores differences between the decisions of elected and appointed judges.
March 2008
“I just have a lot of passion for doing economic analysis of political matters,” says Claire Lim. As an undergraduate at Seoul National University, she followed her passion, double majoring in economics and political science. A Ph.D. student in economics, she still fosters that fascination with data and numbers and politics.

In the U.S., more than 90 percent of civil and felony cases are handled by state-court judges. With a dissertation-research grant from the National Science Foundation, Lim has factored how the decisions of appointed judges differ from those who are elected. “Appointment and election are typical ways of selecting public officials,” she explains. “If you can’t understand these two important institutions, then you are basically failing to understand an important part of government operation.”

For her study, Lim looked at judges in Kansas, where both systems of selection are used. In some districts judges are appointed by the governor. When their first term expires, they face no challenger but must be reelected by a simple yes-or-no majority. In other Kansas districts, judges face competitive elections for their first and subsequent terms. Lim put together a massive data set on the backgrounds, career profiles, sentencing behaviors and electoral outcomes for 243 Kansas judges who sat on the bench in 1976 and after. The data also captured the political climate in each of the state’s 31 judicial districts.

“What I found is that appointed judges are very homogeneous and elected judges are very, very heterogeneous in terms of their ideological preferences,” Lim says. The sentences of appointed judges clustered at a moderate point between lenient and severe, but elected judges handed down sentences that scattered across that spread.

“Elected judges are also much more responsive to voters’ preferences,” Lim interprets. “But in these noncompeting reelections appointed judges are almost always rubber stamped by voters – their reelection is not affected by their decisions at all.” Appointed judges, her data show, dispense a moderate and consistent form of justice while elected judges mete out harsher or more lenient sentences, depending on the political leanings of their district’s voters.

“Claire’s dissertation is original and ambitious,” observes Antonio Merlo, the Lawrence R. Klein Professor of Economics. “It combines state-of-the-art economic modeling, data analysis and econometrics to study an extremely important set of issues.”

For the near term, Lim is heading to Stanford as an assistant professor of political economy. She plans to continue feeding her data-parsing passion with economic analysis of campaign spending, term limits and other political matters.