The competitiveness of female candidates in judicial elections: an analysis of the North Carolina trial court races.

AuthorReid, Traciel V.
PositionPerspectives: Judicial Elections Versus Merit Selections

The extent to which state judgeships are accessible to women raises important concerns about using elections as a method of judicial selection. Even though the judicial selection debate has centered on whether the selection process should foster judicial accountability or judicial independence, there seems to be widespread agreement that states should adopt a selection method that at least ensures that all qualified candidates have equal access to state judgeships. (1) As women comprise an increasing percentage of the legal profession, their access to state judgeships is affected by their ability to compete effectively in state judicial elections. (2) Therefore, any study that explores the impact of gender upon judicial elections will add to the debate over the appropriateness of using elections to select state court judges.

Although numerous studies have examined the impact of gender upon political campaigns, research concerning the women who campaign in judicial elections has been strikingly limited. (3) This study fills that void in the existing literature on judicial selection and gender politics by examining whether, or to what extent, gender affects judicial campaigns and judicial elections. Specifically, it provides one of the few empirical comparisons of the women and men who have campaigned for elective state judgeships. Indeed, the findings presented here will contribute to our understanding of the competitiveness of female candidates in judicial elections and, to a lesser extent, the accessibility of judicial elections.

This study adopts the methodology found in existing political science research. It uses campaign contribution totals and what percentage of the vote candidates received as indicators of electoral competitiveness. (4) Drawing upon the research on female political candidates and judicial selection, this study also assumes that money plays an important--albeit not determinative--role in mounting viable campaigns for political and judicial office. (5) Similarly, the percentage of the vote provides a very good measure of electoral competitiveness because it, more accurately than whether a candidate wins or loses, indicates how competitive candidates are in comparison to their opponents. (6) For example, a candidate who wins by ten percentage points is considered electorally stronger (more competitive) than a candidate who wins by two percentage points. Finally, this study employs aggregate comparisons and multivariate analysis to assess whether female candidates were as competitive as male candidates when pursuing elective state judgeships.

The general elections for the North Carolina District Court held between 1994 and 1998 provide a good set of races to explore how women competed for elected state judgeships. The North Carolina District Court is the state's minor trial court. As such, it hears misdemeanors, civil suits in which less than $10,000 is in jeopardy, and selected family cases. Judicial candidates run for district court seats from geographical districts (judicial districts) that are dispersed throughout the state of North Carolina. Interestingly, these judicial districts do not correspond closely with other political districts: they can cross county lines or encompass one county, and they do not have the same geographic parameters as state legislative or congressional districts. District court judges are the most electorally accountable judges in North Carolina because, in contrast to higher state court judges who serve eight-year terms, their terms of office are four years. During the 1994 to 1998 election cycles, North Carolina used partisan elections to select district court judges as well as appellate court judges. (7) The district court races held during this time netted impressive results. Sixty-eight contested races occurred over these three general-election cycles. Forty-three women competed for thirty-four seats; these women ran as incumbents, as challengers, and as open-seat candidates; they ran as Democrats and Republicans; and they participated in contests where they were pitted against men as well as against other women. (8)

Therefore, the women who vied for seats on the North Carolina District Court constitute a representative pool of candidates to explore whether a candidate's gender has a significant impact on judicial campaigns and elections. Despite the methodological concerns of making generalizations based on the information gathered from a set of races held in a single state, this study argues that in these trial court races, female candidates confronted different electoral challenges than male candidates and, consequently, adopted distinct campaign strategies to overcome barriers to attaining these state judgeships.


An overview of the aggregate data reported in Table 1 shows that, as a group, the women who ran in the 1994 to 1998 district court races reported more money in total receipts than male district court candidates, and these women used their collected funds to outspend the men in promoting their candidacies. (9) There was an approximate $6,500 difference between the amount of money that women and men raised, and an approximate $6,800 difference between the amount of money that women and men spent during these three election cycles. Furthermore, women in every candidate category were more adept at funding their district court campaigns than men. Female incumbents outpaced male incumbents, female challengers surpassed male challengers, and female open-seat candidates outpaced male open-seat candidates. Therefore, if aggregate data of contributions and expenditure are indicators of electoral competitiveness, then women--as a group and as incumbents, challengers, or open-seat candidates--were as competitive as...

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