Why Women Win: Gender and Success in State Supreme Court Elections

Published date01 May 2019
Date01 May 2019
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2019, Vol. 47(3) 582 –600
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X18788043
Why Women Win:
Gender and Success in
State Supreme Court
Tony Nguyen1
Although women remain underrepresented in U.S. elective office, female
candidates have experienced similar or greater electoral success compared
to their male counterparts. Research suggests both selection effects (the
uniquely strong characteristics and qualifications of women who run for
office) and selective candidacy (the decisions to run or not run for office
based on the electoral context) contribute to this phenomenon. I leverage
a large data set of candidate characteristics and electoral outcomes in
state supreme court elections spanning 1990-2012 to clarify the causal
mechanisms behind the electoral success of female candidates. I find that
the success of female candidates in state supreme court elections is driven
by the most capable women selectively running for open seats. I conclude
that this phenomenon may be reflective of a broader gender gap in political
ambition, with implications for tactics to improve gender representation in
gender, judicial elections, state courts, political ambition
1Yale University, Rose Alumni Hall, New Haven, CT, USA
Corresponding Author:
Tony Nguyen, New York, NY, USA.
Email: tony.nguyen@aya.yale.edu
788043APRXXX10.1177/1532673X18788043American Politics ResearchNguyen
Nguyen 583
Gender diversity in the judiciary has increased over the past decades, particu-
larly in state courts. Women increased their share of state court seats from 16%
in the 1970s to 29% in the 2000s (Reddick, Nelson, & Caufield, 2009). For
state supreme courts, while only six women held seats between 1922 and 1974,
55 women served between 1976 and 1992 (Bratton & Spill, 2002). Women
nevertheless remain underrepresented, holding only 32% of all state court seats
and 35% of state supreme court seats (American Bar Association, 2016).
The state of gender diversity in the judiciary has important normative
implications. First, diversity in appellate courts drives case outcomes and
legal precedent. For instance, female judges on the U.S. Courts of Appeals are
more likely than male judges to vote in favor of plaintiffs alleging sex dis-
crimination (Boyd, Epstein, & Martin, 2010; Farhang & Wawro, 2004;
Peresie, 2005). Panel effects also exist—the presence of female judges in
panel deliberations increases the likelihood that male judges also vote in favor
of plaintiffs (Boyd et al., 2010; Farhang & Wawro, 2004; Peresie, 2005).
Second, increased representation of women may contribute to the legitimacy
of judicial institutions by strengthening perceptions that courts uphold ideals
of fairness and equality (Hunter, 2015; Malleson, 2003). Finally, increased
representation of women may help normalize gender equity by breaking down
the association between masculinity and political power, in particular, the per-
ception that politics is a male domain (Thomas & Wilcox, 2014).
State supreme court seats are filled through a hodgepodge of selection pro-
cesses, including several types of elections. In 13 states, judicial candidates
compete in nonpartisan elections without party affiliations. Two states—
Michigan and Ohio—have “semipartisan” elections, in which candidates are
fielded through party primaries but appear on the general election ballot with-
out a party affiliation. In seven states, candidates compete in partisan elec-
tions, appearing on the ballot with a party affiliation. Finally, 19 states have
retention elections, in which sitting justices defend their seat after a fixed
period of time following their initial appointment or election. Voters are pre-
sented with a choice to either allow a justice to retain their seat or remove
them from office. If voters choose not to retain a justice, the vacancy is filled
through another appointment or election (American Judicature Society, 2013).
This article assesses the relationship between gender and electoral success
in state supreme court elections. I use a multiyear, multistate data set—the
largest to date on gender in state supreme court elections—to identify if, when,
and why women win at similar or greater rates than men. First, I confirm the
existing theory that female candidates experience high electoral success
because they are especially capable (the “Jackie Robinson effect”). Second, I

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