Political and Judicial Checks on Corruption: Evidence from American State Governments
One of the core ideas of American government is that coequal, separate branches serve to balance out one another, reducing the abuse of power and the potential for corruption. Though this theory can seem self-evidently valid, little research has been conducted on how the separation of powers may be stronger or weaker in particular cases.
A 2008 study from Harvard and the University of Copenhagen published in Economics & Politics, “Political and Judicial Checks on Corruption: Evidence from American State Governments,” examines data on corruption through the 1990s to compare states where a single political party controls the executive and legislative branches with those where power is divided. The researchers look at how the state judiciary — which can be elected or appointed, or a mix of both — affects these dynamics. The study also accounts for the partisan affiliation of elected judges, where appropriate; for appointed judges, it tracks the party affiliation of their legislative or executive backers.
The study’s findings include:
- The data suggest that “divided government reduces corruption, that having some form of elected judges probably reduces corruption, and that the interaction effects suggest that divided government and elected judges are substitutes in controlling corruption.” This finding “confirms the popular perception of divided government as providing a system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches.”
- “The effect of elected or accountable judges is particularly strong when government is unified, which is exactly when government cannot or does not always control itself. Thus, in this case the judiciary provides a check on the powers of the two other branches.”
- “The judicial selection procedures are of less importance in the …. case with divided government and thus no collusion among the branches.”
- When the judiciary has been selected from a party in opposition to the party then controlling the other two branches, the effect of lowering corruption is strongest.
- Overall, the study demonstrates how “institutional separation of powers does not always imply a functional separation of powers if institutional actors can collude, something for which political parties provide a natural forum.”
The authors conclude that the results supporting an elected judiciary “may contradict a long-standing belief in the court reform literature that appointed courts are more independent.” However, “different notions of judicial independence” may be at work. Indeed, appointed state courts “may not be independent from either business and other interest groups or the executive branch of government due to the bundling of the political choice and judicial selection. This independence can be achieved by elected courts, though at the risk of judges pandering more to public opinion, which may or may not be desirable from a welfare point of view.”
In related research, a 2011 report from NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, “The New Politics of Judicial Elections,” notes how emerging campaign spending dynamics are influencing state courts in a negative way: “The story of the 2009-10 elections, and their aftermath in state legislatures in 2011, reveals a coalescing national campaign that seeks to intimidate America’s state judges into becoming accountable to money and ideologies instead of the constitution and the law.”
Tags: crime, law, corruption
Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "Judges For Sale."
- What key insights from the article and study should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?
Read the full study titled “Political and Judicial Checks on Corruption: Evidence from American State Governments.”
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?