Harvard Law Review Harvard Law Review Harvard Law Review

Legal History

Economic Crisis and the Rise of Judicial Elections and Judicial Review

Almost ninety percent of state judges today face some kind of popular election. This uniquely American institution emerged in a sudden burst from 1846 to 1853, as twenty states adopted judicial elections. The modern perception is that judicial elections, then and now, weaken judges and the rule of law. When judicial elections swept the country in the late 1840s and 1850s, however, the key was a new movement to limit legislative power, to increase judicial power, and to strengthen judicial review. Over time, judicial appointments had become a tool of party patronage and cronyism. Legislative overspending on internal improvements and an economic depression in the early 1840s together had plunged the states into crippling debt. In response, a wave of nineteen states called constitutional conventions from 1844 to 1853. In addition to direct limits on legislative power, most of these conventions adopted judicial elections. Many delegates stated that their purpose was to strengthen the separation of powers and empower courts to use judicial review. The reformers got results: elected judges in the 1850s struck down many more state laws than their appointed predecessors had in any other decade. These elected judges played a role in the shift from active state involvement in economic growth to laissez-faire constitutionalism. Oddly, the first generation of elected judges was the first to justify judicial review in counter¬majoritarian terms, in the defense of individual and minority rights against abusive majorities and the “evils” of democracy. The Article concludes with lessons about judicial independence and democracy from this story.